Sorting Williams College's Trash at a Waste Audit

Kelly Chen ’17 reaches for a new bag

What’s in your trash? Volunteers gathered at Lambert Garage on January 12th to find out! Working with Facilities and Zilkha Center staff, students sorted through a cross-section of Williams trash: Three bags from each trash room of sixteen residence halls, academic buildings, and dining halls. Participants sorted trash into categories that included mixed paper, corrugated cardboard, paper towels, plastic and glass recyclables, food waste, liquids, plastic bags, packing materials, non-food compostable waste, clothing, lab waste, reusables (including dining services dishes!), and miscellaneous trash. They then recorded the weight and volume of each category for every building.

Waste audits like this are useful because they provide data about what people throw out and where they throw it out. For instance, if results show that recyclables make up a significant percentage of the trash content, the Center might decide to increase education about responsible recycling or provide more recycling bins in key locations. The results from this 2017 waste audit can also be compared with past waste audits to observe long-term trends at the College.

Ang Sherpa ’19 poses with a Santa mustache found in the trash

Sorters wore rubber gloves and Tyvek suits to protect themselves from unpleasant surprises (there were a few of these: a carton of spoiled milk, for instance). Occasionally, though, more amusing surprises emerged: Highlights included an adhesive Santa mustache and eyeball bouncy balls.

Participation in the waste audit allowed students to get up-close and personal with a part of the College’s operations that they might not think about every day. On their lunch break, sorters reflected on their findings. One student pointed out that cans and bottles from campus parties are more likely to end up in the trash than in the recycling, which leads to significant waste. Another talked about how learning about waste reduction led her to value minimalism and think more critically about every purchase she made. And several students remarked that participation in the waste audit will encourage them to think more about their trash and recycling habits in the future. 

Results from the 2017 Waste Audit













Peter Lugthart ’18 with a used eyeball
L to R: Ronak Dave ’17, Abby Rampone ’17, Kelly Chen ’17








L to R: Katie Manning ’20, Marshall Borrus ’20, Kelly Chen ’17, Daisy Banta ’18, Borah Lim ’17
















Marshall Borrus ’20 replaces the liner of one of the sorting bins



Abby Rampone ’17 is a communications intern at the Zilkha Center for Environmental Initiatives