Harvard Law School was the first School at Harvard to make compost bins widely available, and anyone who’s spent time on our campus knows how visible our labeled trash, recycling, and compost receptacles are. So we must do a good job of making sure all waste gets to its proper place, right?

Earlier this month, the HLS Green Living Representatives (“Green Reps”) conducted a “waste audit” to figure it out. The waste audit is a biannual endeavor conducted at Harvard’s Recycling and Waste Services facilities in Allston. Under the guidance of Harvard Supervisor of Recycling and Solid Waste Removal, Rob Gogan, the Green Reps (garbed in protective gear) dug into bags of trash selected at random from HLS dorms and academic buildings to determine how much of what’s placed in HLS trash bins can actually be reused, recycled, or composted. The answer was, frankly, quite a lot.

After sorting out and weighing the contents of each trash bag, we found that only 22%—less than a quarter!—of the trash we surveyed as a representative sample actually belonged in the trash. Twenty-four percent of the trash was recyclable, and a whopping 48% was compostable. (The remaining 6% was made up of liquid waste and reusable items that didn’t need to be thrown away, such as clothing hangers).

The Green Reps’ own non-statistical, qualitative assessment of the waste included observations that lots of food waste and paper towels seem to be making their way into the trash rather than being composted. We found more recyclable plastic containers than there should have been, but people seem to be doing a good job of getting those where they belong. There was a good deal of paper waste that students might not realize can be recycled.

Unfortunately, this year’s numbers serve as a reminder that we have a lot of work to do in helping HLS dispose of its waste properly. Although our recycling contamination has held to the same number as last year’s audit (24%), the amount of compost found in the trash has climbed upward to 48%. 

The waste audit was tough work (and smelly, too), but it reminded the Green Reps of our commitment to reducing waste at HLS through outreach, advocacy, and education. We look forward to the spring waste audit to see if we’ve been able to help our classmates make our trash just trash.