October 19, 2011 – It’s trash day today in our neighborhood. Starting my four-block walk to Mason’s Arlington campus this morning, I saw a rubber band in front of my neighbor’s yard, decided to pick it up, then drop it in the next street-side bin I came to… then again, perhaps it could be re-used? In front of the next house, a scattering of cigarette butts – I picked those up too. By the time I got to the corner where school kids and their parents were waiting for the bus, I had a whole fistful of neighborhood grime, and continued, “good morning, neighbors” – in the face of their amusingly bewildered expressions – to pick up bits and pieces as I crossed the crosswalk to the gutter on the far side, trying to keep my coat and tie dry each time I leaned down into the drizzly muck.
Two blocks from my destination, my hands are filling with leaf-spackled trash. Why didn’t I bring a plastic bag with me? Oh look, there’s a discarded Examiner newspaper bag – that will do just perfectly! Approaching Washington Boulevard, I add to my trash treasures a flattened Red Bull can, a half drunk plastic water bottle, and the lid from a (no doubt delicious) Lebanese Taverna salad-to-go. And more cigarette butts, demarcating another smoking zone.
One block to go, I’m passing the 7-11 and an outdoor outfitter. Still more trash for my collection: A triangular pizza-by-the-slice box, a Slim Jim beef jerky wrapper, and a can of beer… Miller Light beer. Plus bits and pieces of colorful plastic, rusting metal from mysterious machines, an unused produce bag from Giant, and still more cigarette butts. (Has anyone thought of composting butts?)
Once I entered my destination at Founders Hall, I tallied my collection: 39 butts, parts of 17 food and drink containers, 7 pieces of paper, stickers and wipes, one of those “don’t eat this, it keeps your food dry” square thingies, and uncountable other soggy bits of paper, metal and plastic, completely filling my newspaper bag. In a four… block… walk.
After washing up, the remainder of my morning was spent participating in Alice Ferguson Foundation’s 6th Annual Potomac Watershed Trash Summit. As a co-host, I presented my trashy treasure bag to over 100 people finishing their delicious – and trash-free – lunches, as provided by the nation’s “first green certified caterer.” (I hope my show and tell didn’t cause anyone indigestion.)
Over a quirky mike, I then told them about the 1,000+ Prince William Middle School students we surveyed who, by a large majority, viewed trash as the number #1 threat to the Chesapeake Bay. I also celebrated the 30 to 50% of trash that localities represented here are now diverting from their waste stream. Maybe this will be the year we crack 50%?
Mason has some good trash tales to tell too:
One of our students recently developed a pilot project to replace some of Fairfax County offices’ trash bins with recycling bins, leaving only desktop “mini-bins” for desk workers’ un-diverted garbage.
The university as a whole was among the first 40 nation-wide to receive a sort of “LEED-for-universities” STARS Silver rating for its sustainability features. From the associated report, I learned Mason patriots annually produce somewhere around one pound of waste per pound of faculty, students and staff (almost 40,000 of us in all). I also lamented that Mason’s trash diversion rate is less than half that of the counties in which it resides. BUT all new Mason buildings (with one opening every few months) are built to LEED Silver standards. And about 95% of those construction materials are used or recovered. We also have an electronic waste diversion and reclamation program, an active surplus furniture reuse system, and have just started composting a portion of our dining halls’ food waste.
Leaving their dorms at the end of each academic year, our resident students participate in “Patriot Pack-Out.” They’ve recycled over 8,000 pounds of recyclable materials and donated 1,384 pounds of food to Food for Others (feeding 346 families!). About 6,800 pounds of their clothing and small appliances were given to the Clock Tower Thrift Shop in Falls Church. This raised almost $27,000 for Northern Virginia Family Services’ programs for Fairfax County families.
And when our students graduate, the emerald gowns they wear proudly are made of 100% recycled plastic, then collected as they leave for a new round of reuse or recycling!
I end with a line from one of our student’s Facebook page:
“My friend just saw [Mason’s] President Merten pick up and recycle a plastic bottle that some rude kid threw on the ground. This made my heart warm.”
Every day is still a trash day in the Potomac watershed. Yet, in public and private moments, you and I can walk out on any street and make a bit more of a difference. Become one among many leaders in creating a trash-free watershed and, maybe someday, a trash-free world. Carpe garbage! Let’s make hearts warm…