Santa Clara University

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The Yuck Factor

Mold, methane, and enteric fermentation. Rates of decomposition. And a lot of pictures of dead things. It’s not “CSI.” It’s the Joy of Garbage.

Going far beyond “why recycling is good,” the Joy of Garbage is a course taught by instructor Virginia Matzek that covers the science and consequences of what humans consume and discard. Students focus on two types of waste: items that rot, decompose, and break down; and items that do not.

Matzek is director of campus and community programs for the Environmental Studies Institute, which integrates natural and social sciences with the University’s core values to promote sustainability. For the Joy of Garbage, Matzek takes advantage of what she calls the “high ‘yuck’ factor.” Students get up close and personal with the conceptual side of the course through field trips to local environmental service destinations like landfills, sewage treatment plants, and electronic waste recycling facilities.

“It’s a very mundane act, to throw something away,” Matzek says. “Hardly anybody knows where it goes. Many of the students have never given it the slightest thought.” Others might be poorly informed or confused about environmental issues, lacking a scientific background and comprehensive sources of information.

In addition to the technical aspects of decomposition and waste processes, the class explores social justice issues that come out of environmental matters: that landfills and recycling centers are frequently located in poorer neighborhoods; or that American Indian tribes, as sovereign nations, can store nuclear waste for the U.S. government. In one early class project, students must locate the landfills or recycling centers in their own hometowns, then compare the results with neighborhood census data.

Then there are the larger issues tied to recycling—financial and environmental costs of collection, sorting, processing, and production—that make even the feel-good act of recycling a more complicated issue.

—Sarah Stanek

students at recycling facility

Students in the Joy of Garbage class visit a recycling facility

Photos: Charles Barry

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