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What I Learned from Standing Next to a Trash Bin

By Dana Greene, Materials Management Intern

As an intern with Plant Chicago, I have been able to work on a variety of unique projects project related to materials management. For some, “materials management” is just a polite way to talk about trash. For others, it’s a way to change the way we think about “trash” not as a waste, but as an opportunity.

Project #1: Sorting through some trash

This past spring, I was fortunate enough to be able to work alongside Professor Weslynne Ashton of the Illinois Institute of Technology and her Sustainable Management graduate students to participate in a broad-scoped Material and Energy Flow Analysis (MEFA) of a co-located business of The Plant, Whiner Beer Company. This research involved practical applications of sustainability in the workplace such as industrial modeling, input-output analysis, and waste auditing. These skills are of incredible value for sustainability analysts and I am thrilled to have had hands-on experience with them so early in my career.

While a more detailed report on the MFA of Whiner Beer will be coming out this summer, I can include a fun image of the materials flows (see below). These images show the relative proportions of materials flowing in and out of the beer making process. A quick look reveals that almost all of material used in the product is water! While we know from previous studies that all of the spent grain is being composted on site by both Whiner and Bubbly Dynamics, at the moment little of the water is being recaptured. It’s a reminder of the challenge that water presents in the circular economy.

Diagram highlighting the various resources used and produced in the production of beer.

MEFA of water used and produced at Whiner Brewing Co.

Project #2: Standing next to the trash

An ongoing responsibility of mine is to coordinate waste diversion efforts at Plant Chicago’s year-round market. The majority of my efforts involve standing next to Plant Chicago’s “waste station” (pictured), which measures the weight of respective material streams generated at the market in real time. Data is collected during the market and compared to previous markets, setting a communal goal for market goers to have the lowest possible diversion results.

The waste station provides opportunities to measure impact while at the same time educating market goers. Standing next to the station each market allowed me to educate market goers on how to properly dispose their “waste” products – compost, recycling, or landfill. I noticed that market customers and volunteers tend to share a common respect for the environment, however, that respect didn’t always translate to a conscious effort to dispose of waste correctly. One thing I realized from standing next to this quite complex “trash bin” was that many people still do not think about where to throw these items, or what happens to them after they are “thrown away”.  I constantly found myself stopping people from just tossing and showing them the labels above the bins.

Here is a quick summary of our results so far: From February’s audit, we collected 17.0 lbs compost; 5.0 lbs recycling; 6.38 lbs landfill (78% diversion). In June’s audit, we weighed in at 20.8 lbs compost; 3.8 lbs recycling; 4.2 lbs landfill (85% diversion). Overall, the trends showing our compost numbers going up, and most importantly, our landfill and recycling numbers going down. If we continue to see our customers coming in with eco-conscious materials (reusable water bottles, no Starbucks hot cups, no straws, etc.), we will continue to see this positive change. Being a part of this process has made me more conscious of my own choices, as I’m beginning to think a lot more about what I put in a trash bin. Becoming completely “zero waste” will be incredibly difficult, but seeing consistent, positive change is really promising.

One of the prepared food vendors at the market, Temo’s Tamales, become the first vendor to go 100% compostable. This is a tremendous step forward towards our goal of becoming “zero waste” market. Temo now serves as a great example for how easy it can be, even as a small business, to transition to circular business practices while earning more revenue. I constantly hear people at the waste station saying how impressive it is that everything from Temo’s Tamales is 100% compostable, and the numbers really do show in our waste audit results.

Talking Trash

Interning with Plant Chicago allowed me to forge my own path and goals within the organization. With this approach, I took on a wide variety of tasks and learned how to be extremely adaptable and flexible in the workplace. But in the beginning, having so much freedom was a challenge. We grow up in a culture where you are given a set of rules and objectives to follow in most educational and professional settings.

Plant Chicago workshops, programs, and social gatherings allowed me to network, gain general career inspiration and ideas, and most importantly, learn new things about the field of work.

Digging through trash is certainly not for everyone, but through my experience educating people on the importance of waste diversion, I realized that my values, career interests, and personal pursuits are all in line with a career in sustainability. From leading and conducting waste audits, to providing technical assistance through MEFA, I feel confident in pursuing a career in sustainable food systems and the circular economy!


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