By Emma Dacol, 2016 FM Intern

Garbology: “The study of trash and its origins”

All of the Smithsonian Institution (SI) museums in the Washington, D.C metro area participate in recycling. The National Museum of American History, the National Museum of the American Indian, and the National Museum of Natural History also participate in composting of food waste and compostable dishware. The Smithsonian’s Recycling Task Force formed in 2010 to improve waste diversion at the Smithsonian Institution. Waste diversion is the act of redirecting waste to a second use (recycling, composting) instead of sending it to a landfill. The group consists of 25 individuals, representing all of the SI museums in the Washington, D.C metro area. The Task Force educates staff and visitors about recycling and composting, creates new programs for waste diversion, and publishes the “Sustainability Matters” newsletter. They also monitor the effectiveness of waste diversion efforts through collecting and analyzing waste diversion data and conducting localized waste-stream audits in target areas.

A waste audit is a simple method for organizations to determine if waste is going to the proper receptacles, along with what type of waste is being generated and in what quantities. Waste audits can also be conducted as an educational tool. During the Smithsonian’s 2014 Earth Day programs, Smithsonian staff conducted a waste audit for the public to educate visitors about recycling and waste reduction. In a basic waste audit, a sample of landfill trash, compost or recycling is physically sorted. Using a scale, the original waste sample is weighed before the sort and then each category of waste is weighed after the sort. If waste diversion programs are running 100% smoothly, recyclable and compostable items will not be found in a sample of landfill trash and vice versa.

However, according to Eric Hollinger, archaeologist at the National Museum of Natural History and Recycling Task Force member, most SI waste audits do not yield such perfect results. In some especially poor audits, 20 bags of landfill trash can yield 18 bags of recycling and compost material, and only 2 bags of landfill trash. While there is room for improvement, the Smithsonian Institution has a lot to be proud of. In 2015, the Smithsonian diverted 43% of its waste from landfills by recycling and composting a total of 1,944 tons. That’s the weight of approximately 409 elephants! Steve Nelson, Building Manager of the National Museum of Natural History and chair of the Recycling Task Force states that these achievements are “an awesome testament to the hard work of Smithsonian staff.”

Smithsonian Institution’s current goal is to divert 80% of its waste from landfills by 2020. Smithsonian staff can help by becoming familiar with what’s recyclable and what’s not and continuing to make the choice to recycle and compost when they deposit their trash.

It is important to remember that trash is a recoverable resource. Coffee grounds can be composted and become soil. A plastic beverage bottle can have a second life as a backpack, a fleece jacket or a carpet. An aluminum can is so easily recycled that an average can is recycled nine times in a single year.  Using recycled materials reduces the need to use natural resources like water, oil and timber to create new materials for the production of goods and services. Recycling and composting also reduce pollution by decreasing the need for landfills and reducing the amount of toxins leached into the environment from plastic debris. Additionally, creating new products from recycled materials uses less energy and reduces the release of greenhouse gases, which trap heat in the atmosphere and cause global warming.

Moreover, recycling and composting isn’t just environmentally sustainable, it’s fiscally responsible. According to Hollinger, in addition to earning money from the recycling of bottles and cans, paper, cardboard, acrylic, and scrap metal, the Smithsonian Institution saves $129 for every ton that is recycled instead of being sent to a landfill. In 2015, the recycling of these materials saved the institution approximately $90,302.

“Sustainability often comes down to best practices,” says Hollinger. When Smithsonian staff are mindful of best practices, recycling and composting doesn’t take much time, energy or effort. It’s important for staff to remember to check the bottom of plastic bottles and containers for their resin code number. Every plastic bottle or container has a recycling symbol, a small triangle containing a number ranging from 1 to 7. Smithsonian recycles plastic bottles and containers with resin code numbers 1 through 5. It’s also important for staff to know that office paper and cardboard contaminated with liquid or food waste cannot be recycled, but it can be composted. Through recycling and composting effectively, SI staff can help make Smithsonian Institution sustainable, ensuring that the Institution can continue to serve as “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge…” for future generations.