At the Curry Student Center food court, Mike Luna is digging into a meal of sweet potatoes and sipping soda from the non-recyclable cup given to him by one of the Northeastern University (NU) restaurants. However, the sophomore biology major does not necessarily know how to dispose of his trash.
“Most of the time, I don’t know where food packaging should go,” Luna said. “Maybe it could say something on it? I’d do the right thing with this if I knew what the right things was.”
He keeps opening and closing the white box his food came in, looking for a sign or a word that could give him a hint of where the packaging should go once he’s done with the meal: Trash, recycling or compost.
In celebration of Earth Day 2016, The News conducted a survey about campus environmental education with questions focusing on clarity and convenience when it comes to recycling and composting. Almost 95 percent of respondents said if NU placed restaurant-specific visuals above trash cans, recycling and composting bins, people would be more likely to dispose of their trash correctly. Over 90 percent of respondents said NU would benefit from more recycling and composting bins. Almost 100 percent of respondents said sometimes, they don’t know if their food packaging can be recycled or composted, with a third of them saying this situation happens either all or most of the time.
Michael Oshman, CEO and founder of Green Restaurant Association, which helped certify several NU’s restaurants and dining halls as “green,” said that above all, recycling needs to be easy.
“You can’t ask the consumer to do 10 complicated things while throwing away trash,” Oshman said. “If you don’t make it simple, it’s not going to work. We need to make a system that’s easy to use as well as to educate people through electronic menu boards, news letters and social media.”
He also said it’s important to inform dining services staff about recycling and composting properties of food packaging that they use for serving. The News asked five Curry Dining services workers if they receive this kind of sustainability training, and all of them said the NU administration never provided them with any information. All workers chose to remain anonymous.
“I’m definitely a big fan of policy change because the reality of the situation is this: If the university isn’t giving us enough resources and education about recycling, people aren’t going to recycle,” Yvette Niwa, president of Huskies Environmental Action Team (HEAT) and sophomore environmental studies and international affairs combined major, said.
Nathalia Moreira, junior business major, said that every trash can, recycling and composting bin on campus should have photos of packaging above it so it’s easy for people to understand where their trash should go. She said that it’s crucial NU does this because of the number of international students on campus.
“Because recycling and composting aren’t commonplace in some countries, some students don’t think about separating their waste,” Moreira said.
In November 2015, NU Office of Energy Management, Sustainability, Commissioning and Regulatory Compliance issued a document called “Update on Sustainability 2005-2025” outlining the university’s past and present achievements as well as the future goals.
Carol Rosskam, NU sustainability program manager, said that although NU is constantly trying to improve its environmentally-conscious practices, the student body doesn’t always react to these positively.
“Several years ago, at the request of the Student Government Association, more than 10,000 small recycling bins were purchased for residence hall rooms,” Rosskam said. “But students complained about bins taking up too much space.”
She said that sustainability isn’t just the university’s responsibility – it’s also up to students to care about the environment in the practical sense – to recycle and to compost.
According to NU’s Green Plan 2016, the university uses “compostable servicewear products wherever possible on campus,” including Chinet paper plates, Ecotainer cups, Fabri-Kal greenware products and more. Yet, 10 percent of students who took the survey don’t know that food packaging can be compostable.
Andy Brooks, founder of Bootstrap Compost, Greater Boston’s residential and commercial food scrap pickup service, said there is a lack of knowledge about sustainable practices.
“A lot of people buy compostable stuff and think they are doing the right thing, but if you’re throwing a corn cup in the trash, it’s just a waste of money and resources,” Brooks said. “If compostables are covered with other items, they can’t get the oxygen and moisture they need to decompose naturally, and they will still be contributing to global warming.”
Lena Music, sophomore journalism and environmental science double major, said NU needs to organize more educational programs, especially for incoming freshmen.
“The signage for composing is awful everywhere except for the dining halls. Curry has one composting bin, while at Rebecca’s everyone throws trash into compost because people are lazy,” Music said. “The main solution lies in education. People need to know that composting is beneficial to everyone.”
Lena said that although NU is a fairly progressive college in terms of sustainability, there is still work to be done.
“Northeastern toots its own horn a bit much about its sustainability,” she said.