Where does our waste go?

Emily Sun and Jillian Lee

“It needs to become second nature to be conscious about where we’re throwing our waste,”  Head of Facilities Management Gordon Jensen said. This year, the school is set to produce about 270 to 350 tons of un-recycled trash, based on Jensen’s estimates. The school produces 80 to 100 55-gallon bags of waste per day, approximately the weight of two small cars, he said. 

Since the harmful effects of the school’s waste are not visible to those who produce it, people might not consider their impact when they generate trash, Arya Patel (12) said. “What happens to a container or a utensil after you throw it out?” she said. “We should think about where our waste goes because if we don’t, it’s easier for us to produce more.”

NYC produces about 84,000 tons of trash and recyclables per week, according to “The New York Times.” The school’s waste contributes to this figure. However, rather than processing the school and city’s waste within the five boroughs, NYC exports the trash to other parts of the country in states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia. If the waste is incinerated, it has a 79 percent chance of ending up in communities of color or low-income communities, according to “The Washington Post.” 

Local government and waste management companies build more landfills or incinerators in these areas due to zoning laws, resulting in increased risks of cancers, respiratory illness, and birth defects among residents, according to the “The Washington Post.”

Food waste from food preparation at the school has risen by 50 percent due to the increase in offerings. The cafeteria has adopted unique techniques to reduce waste, Head of Flik Staff Brenda Cohn said. The cafeteria uses techniques to get the most out of products such as cutting fruits tight to the skin, and storing ingredients at the appropriate temperature to prevent them from spoiling, she said.

Flik staff also keeps production records of each menu item to track how much students consume on average so they do not under or over-prepare food, Cohn said. They repurpose leftover products such as bread and kitchen scraps into bread pudding and soup stock, and distribute extra food to faculty and staff.

Fryers in the cafeteria use 50 gallons of oil per week, which is less than the 150 gallons in previous years because of a new fryer that filters and refines used oil so it can be reused three times, Cohn said. The Flik staff then recycles the oil with a company called Biodiesel, which turns oil into renewable diesel.

Much of the food waste at the school occurs when people grab more food than they can eat, Cohn said. “Take one item and if you’re still hungry, come back for more; don’t pile up too much food then throw it away.”

The school does not have a compost system, so they dispose of food waste with other trash, Cohn said. Nina Gaither (12) said she hopes the school can instate a composting program to reduce and repurpose food waste, as well as paper and plant trimmings from landscaping.

People are especially prone to waste food this year because there are more options, Mekhala Mantravadi (11) sai d.“There’s so much [food] that it feels disposable and you’re not cognizant of going up to the counter and paying for it, so it makes people think they can throw it out.”

It can be hard for people in urban environments to appreciate the energy it takes to grow food, which makes it easier for them to take it for granted, Gaither said. “The United States wastes an estimated 40 percent of all food, which is terrifying, especially when you think about the amount of food insecurity in our nation,” she said.

If people understand the environmental impact of food waste, they should be less inclined to throw it out, Gaither said.

Another increase in cafeteria waste this year comes from grab-and-go containers. Cohn said she tries to source materials that are biodegradable or recyclable, such as aluminum and cardboard boxes without wax or petroleum. She also tries to purchase plant-based plastic instead of oil-based, but as the demand for plant-based plastic exceeds the supply, she sometimes has to buy the latter, she said. 

This year, the school reverted to plastic water bottles instead of cans because of an aluminum shortage, as COVID-19 caused a rise in beverage consumption at home, Cohn said. “It’s a very challenging type of food service that we’re doing during COVID; my priority is to keep the food and the students safe, so we do the best that we can under the circumstances.”

The amount of cardboard and plastic waste has risen significantly since the pandemic because of the daily delivery of pizza and the weekly delivery of cleaning supplies, Jensen said.

“Some weeks, the cardboard is stacked to the ceiling [of the recycling center] because so much is ready to be recycled,” Head of Maintenance Dan DeCecco said.

To accommodate this year’s influx of waste, there are over 1,000 trash receptacles on the Middle and Upper Division (UD) campus, more than one bin per student in the UD, Jensen said. This includes waste baskets and paper recycling bins in every classroom, as well as the triple bins for waste, paper, and bottles and cans. 16 custodians work from 4:30pm to 1am to empty every receptacle daily, he said.

After the custodians collect the trash, they consolidate non-recyclable waste into garbage bags and stack them in the parking lot beside Fisher Hall for the NYC Department of Sanitation (DSNYC) to pick up every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, Jensen said.

The DSNYC also collects recycled objects from the school every Thursday, Jensen said. Like trash, NYC exports recycling to other processing plants in the state and across the country. The city transports paper separately from plastic, metal, and glass, so the school sorts recyclables into bags of paper, bottles and cans, and bundles of cardboard, maintenance staff member Jimmy Otsuni said.

Every morning at 6:30am, Ostuni spends an hour sorting the recyclables and breaking down cardboard boxes with a compactor located in the recycling center at the basement of Fisher Hall, he said. “I call it ‘doing my paper-work,’” he said. “We could always do better. If you see somebody not recycling properly, you should educate them.”

“We constantly see the maintenance staff around campus picking trash up, so the campus always appears clean to me [and] we don’t really realize how much waste we actually produce,” Madison Xu (10) said.


One of the ways that the school can cut down on waste is by utilizing electronic formats. For example, the program of studies is available online as well as in physical form, which ultimately creates an unnecessary contribution to the waste production, Avani Khorana (10) said. “Since the program of studies is something that we have electronically, why do we need to waste more paper and plastic to print copies of something that we already have access to?” 


Although the school has increased its efficiency at recycling paper, there is still room for improvement, Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly wrote. “We continue to have days and even periods of time wherein the careless depositing of food or a beverage into a paper recycling container necessitates that we treat the entirety of that container as disposable waste,” he wrote. “It is not the responsibility of our nighttime cleaners to pick through our recycling containers.”

Elise Kang (9) said students are confused about what can be recycled and where, such as whether they can throw chip bags or bottle tops in the bottles and cans bin. The school should put up signs near waste disposal areas to help remind and guide students to recycle correctly, she said.

The school could eliminate the confusion around recycling by providing training and signage about what the grab-and-go containers are made of and how people should recycle them, especially if there is food residue on them, Mantravadi said.

Even if people doubt whether what they throw into the recycling actually gets processed, doing so is better than not recycling at all, Mantravadi said. Although people might not intend to hurt the environment, throwing recyclables into the garbage results in more trash, she said. “Lack of intention is [as harmful as] bad intention.”

Though some sustainability practices had to be suspended because of health and safety protocol, the school will resume all programs when safe, Kelly wrote. “As the pandemic protocols sunset and product is easier to get, we’ll return to our goal of eliminating all plastic beverage containers in the CDC; something we had achieved last year.”

Despite the adjustments for COVID-19, the community can still reduce their plastic and aluminum waste through recycling, Cohn said. “We have to heighten the awareness of the student body to recycle,” she said. “The more we speak about recycling, the more it gets ingrained, and the more likely it will become second nature.”

While it can be challenging to clean food containers before recycling them, people can definitely put bottles and cans in their correct bins, Cohn said. Though it might feel like a small action, it makes a difference if every person does their part, she said.

“We are all a team in terms of taking care of the environment,” DeCecco said. “If you are walking across the field and you see a can on the ground, pick it up and toss it in a recycling bin on your way.”