Crowds of students weave through the mountains of garbage piled in the middle of the College of Charleston campus. Flies buzz around the trash bags and discarded furniture. "This smells so foul," says a coed in oversized sunglasses as she dodges a filthy mattress and a plastic container packed with cigarette butts.
Some people grimace and rush past. Others stop to read the dozens of posters touting environmental facts such as: "To produce each week's Sunday paper, 500,000 trees will be cut down."
But one group of students stands in the middle of the heaps of trash, warily digging through bags full of rotten food and countless plastic containers in search of items that can be recycled.
Students from the college's Alliance for Planet Earth spent the previous night loading a day's worth of campus garbage, the contents of 20 dumpsters, into two 26-foot moving trucks for a trash audit. "They were so full that trash fell out when we opened them," said organizer Fritz Stine, a junior at CofC. At 4 a.m. on the day of the audit, Nov. 13, the volunteers dumped the garbage in Cougar Mall, one of the highest traffic areas on campus.
"Our first goal was to show how much waste we produce in a single day," Stine said. "Our second goal was to show people how much recyclable material we're throwing out, wasting space on a landfill."
The Alliance for Planet Earth handed out spare gloves and health waivers and encouraged passing students to dive in and help. Throughout the day, about 150 student volunteers sifted through 5,864 pounds of trash in search of recyclable material. They discovered that 23 percent of the garbage could be recycled for a total of $775.
When junior Andrea Tremols saw the trash audit, she put on gloves and started helping. "I wanted to support what they were doing," she said. "A few people complained about the trash everywhere, but I think they were more taken aback than angry."
Forty-eight hours passed by the time the volunteers finished sorting and returned the items that couldn't be recycled to the dumpsters. Stine slept for only one hour during that period, stealing a nap on the floor of the lobby of a classroom building.
"If we produced less waste and consolidated it better, we wouldn't have to pay waste industries so much money," Stine said. "We could use the money for student programs, for sustainable light fixtures in the library, or for big projects".
The president's office and the campus grounds crew gave permission for the trash audit without hesitation. Many faculty and staff also showed support. Biology professor Deborah Bidwell rounded up 70 of her students to help with the project. Other professors offered extra credit for participation.
"People really don't realize how much they throw away," said Burton Callicott, chair of the college's new sustainability committee. "This was an incredibly stark way to bring that home. I'd recommend a giant trash audit in Marion Square to show how much the city throws away in a given day."
The CofC campus produces approximately 2,979,360 pounds of waste annually, according to a report from the college's Committee on Recycling and Environmental Responsibility.
The college placed 76th of 77 schools in the national collegiate recycling competition Recyclemania this spring. The college had a 7 percent cumulative recycling rate while the winning university had a rate of almost 60 percent.
"I'm hopeful that we'll see improvement," Callicott said. "You can see from the trash audit that students have steadily gotten more interested and more focused on shrinking our environmental footprint."
Stine hopes to hold trash audits twice a year to remind the campus of its wastefulness. "We need to reduce our waste big-time," he said. "If you don't want to see trash, don't make it."