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Stephanie Hughes and the Joy of Garbage

Monday, Feb. 7, 2011

Few classes offered at Santa Clara University require sorting through trash on a Friday afternoon. However, twice this quarter, an army of students in hazmat suits marched to the Facilities yard to sort through trash from the Leavey, Loyola, and O’Connor buildings to collect data on SCU’s current waste habits. These hands-on experiences are part of Stephanie Hughes’ “ENVS 10: The Joy of Garbage” class, in which students learn what exactly happens to all our “things”.

The class begins with an overview of U.S. waste management in the last century; students learn how America’s relationship with waste shifted from the “use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without” attitude of the Depression era to the post-World War II mentality of large-scale industrialized production and consumption.

The class then learns about the ways we deal with our trash, looking at the issues of dumps, sanitary landfills, and incinerators. Hughes addresses both the benefits and obstacles to recycling and composting technologies, as well as how waste management ties in with public health issues and environmental justice on both local and global scales.

Finally, the class investigates long-term solutions that would reduce waste from all the different steps of a product’s life cycle, from extraction of raw materials to disposal. Apart from the required attendance at waste characterizations on campus, students prepare a final report on a waste category of their choice and then design an outreach project related to that category. Last year, the class took a field trip to tour a waste-water treatment plant and saw how water can be recycled. This year, Hughes arranged for a Hazardous Materials Program Manager to speak to the class later in the quarter.

Although the course is identified as one of the country’s “weird college classes,” the material is far from irrelevant to our daily lives. Many students say they come away from the class with a greater appreciation of what happens to trash after it’s thrown out.

According to Hughes and a student, the controversies over e-waste and bottled water spark the most enthusiasm and discussion during class. After watching Annie Leonard’s short video, "The Story of Bottled Water”, one student says, “It makes you feel really stupid for ever drinking bottled water”. Stephanie Hughes also teaches an “Energy and the Environment” class that requires her students to engage in outreach to the student body about the University’s Residence Energy Challenge.

The mix of readings, discussion, extracurricular participation, and outreach projects in her classes allows students to obtain a well-rounded understanding of sustainability issues both on and off campus. As for the Joy of Garbage class, she chuckles and says that in terms of throwing something away, her students “now know there’s really no ‘away.’”

View photos taken at two of the class' waste characterizations, as well as their results.

By Kaelin Holland '11, Recycling Intern.

Tags: Campus Operations, Curriculum, Education and Research, Living Laboratory, Profiles, Waste



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