The Business of Garbage Collection, the Art of Garbage Interpretation

Last week, a few classmates and I set out to surreptitiously collect and carefully examine trash deposited by two groups of University of Washington students. Approaching this study, we were immediately confronted with a vexing problem: how could we isolate two distinct populations on a campus of 43,000 students? Answering this question was not easy, but eventually we decided that the best place to search was the trash of academic buildings tailored to a single program of study. The majority of students in these buildings, we reasoned, would share a number of academic and perhaps cultural interests and that these similarities would be visible in their trash.

We collected trash from Paccar Hall and the Art Building, home to the Foster Business School and UW’s School of Art, respectively. We selected cans relatively distant from the popular cafes in each building, hoping to collect trash that contained more than the remnants of yesterday’s lunch. Drawing (admittedly) on stereotypes and personal observations of business and art majors, we predicted that trash from Paccar would contain relatively more expensive items and more recyclables than would that from the Art Building.

Drawing more than a few quizzical looks, we managed to whisk away a bag of trash from each building. Examining their contents, we quickly discovered that our predictions were not supported. Despite selecting trash cans away from cafes, the bags were mostly filled with food waste. We observed no obvious difference in the price of disposed items or more recyclables in the Paccar trash.

Given the miniscule sample size, conclusive interpretations remain elusive; however, we believe that the similarities in trash disposal by (we assume) two different populations reveals UW students’ reliance on university food networks and the relatively homogenous fare they provide. Whatever the differences that exist between business and art majors, it may be masked by these students’ widespread patronage of UW cafes and vending machines.

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