Waste Management and the Protection of Privilege: Ethnographic Study at College Recycle Yard

by Celestine Mingle

14 March 2023

Ethnographic Narrative

It was drizzling out and the ground was muddy as I walked to the recycle yard at 10am on the 23rd of February. I crossed through the gates to the recycle yard, separating the space from the rest of the campus. Within the gates were many bins, dumpsters, compressors, and materials organized alongside one oval road which ran all the way through the yard.

As soon as I entered the recycle yard, I noticed the extensive amount of material throughout the space. Small pieces of debris, plastic, and metal can be found anywhere in the yard. Such small pieces of material occupy this space that the debris is almost indecipherable from the dirt and wood chips on the ground. Despite this abundance of materials throughout the yard, the space is highly organized. There is a compactor for cardboard and non-recyclable garbage, a dumpster for commingled recyclables, many bins for paper recycling, a greenhouse, a shed for electronic waste, a shed for hazardous waste and more. Each container is filled to the brim with materials- cups, boxes, beer bottles, tin foil, sandwiches, and lamps to name a few.

Materials also took up space beside these containers, with bags and bags of materials just outside the cardboard compressor and in a pile alongside the commingles container. Upon examining some of the materials scattered on the ground, I spotted coffee cup lids, broken pens, a cream cheese container, and fake flowers in one spot. As I dug the toe of my boot into the ground to sort through some of the materials, I discovered a bone- whether the bone entered the recycle yard by means of a garbage bag or by the other organisms that reside there- I do not know.

While I walked around the recycle yard I observed several trucks, vans, and carts drive into the recycle yard to drop off materials before exiting back through the gates. While observing this I began to speak with an individual who works at the recycle yard and has for the past 20 years. It should be noted that I already knew this individual as I , too, work at the recycle yard. I asked this individual some questions regarding the space and his experience with it. He described how much of what enters the recycle yard is “contaminated.” Take for instance, the commingled recyclables (glass, plastic, and aluminum for this recycle yard). According to this individual, much of what students, professors, and staff put into commingled recyclable collections are contaminated by food and drinks- materials that are not included in commingles. He attributed this contamination to a simple lack of care and effort on the parts of those who discard their contaminated comingles into recycling bins.

The same individual explained how this preventable contamination makes the job of those who work there much more difficult; pushing them into uncomfortable situations. Just how much rotting food, used tissues, and sticky beer bottles can an individual bring themselves to reach their hands into? While describing the situation to me, he reached his bare hands into some of the bags of contaminated comingles himself. He then suggested that I should dig through some of these bags as well to get a better understanding of what ends up in these recyclables. In doing so I found unrinsed milk jugs, take out food containers covered in sauces, notebooks, and a coffee cup that must have been tossed into the bag as the notebook papers were soaked with coffee. 

Shortly afterwards, I noticed one of the 14 cats that I know live at the recycle yard. I asked the previously mentioned long-term worker how long the cats have lived at the yard. He told me that the cats and many vultures had been there as long as he had, and that the recycle yard was their home. The animals all had access to food, shelter, and even played a role in the recycle yard itself. The cats, for instance, are largely responsible for the lack of rodents in the recycle yard. The vultures on the other hand, are preferred to live at the recycle yard as opposed to other, more visible parts of the campus. Both these cats and vultures are fixtures of the recycle yard just as the cardboard, dumpsters, and trucks are. It would be unlikely to go to the recycle yard and not see all of these elements in this space.

While standing in the cold, drizzling rain observing these many elements at play, I asked the same individual a question. I asked what it meant to him to work at the recycle yard. He told me that the goal for him each day is to bring as much “stuff” from beyond the gates and to get it off the campus and into the recycle yard. He said that although there are problems with contamination in the recyclables, that everything he manages to get through the gates each day matters. He said that at the end of each work day he feels that he’s done something to make the campus a little cleaner, and to get undesirables where they belong- into the yard.

As I was wrapping up my observations, a few more vehicles drove past me with people smiling or waving to me through their windows. At the end of the 80 minutes I was cold and tired of wiping my glasses clean of rain droplets. I approached the gates walking away from the recycle yard and I saw the familiar landmarks of the outdoor concert venue and the road ahead to the athletic center. The gates stand tall there, at least 20 feet high, defining a barrier between the recycle yard and the familiar geography of the college campus.

Ethnographic Analysis

What do systems of waste management say about attitudes of privilege and belonging in higher education institutions? In my research I explored a private recycle yard of a college, a feature not present at many other institutions. Said recycle yard operates minutes away from popular locations like the athletic center and a concert venue. Although this waste management site is located on campus, most students complete their 4 years at college without ever seeing the location because it is off limits to non-employees. Behind the 20 feet tall gates which isolate the yard from the rest of campus there are materials, organisms, and people which all participate in a living ecosystem there.

At the center of this ecosystem, is the continual influx of discarded and unwanted materials; recyclables, food waste, “trash.” Each day environmental staff employees drive bags of waste to the recycle yard. It is at the recycle yard where the waste seems to belong. After speaking with a long-term employee of the recycle yard, the attitude towards waste management appears to be getting all forms of waste away from the campus and behind the gates which conceal the recycle yard. With Mary Douglass’s Purity and Danger in mind, the idea of dirt as matter out of place resonates in this situation.1 Based on my observations, it seems that undesirable materials are waste that must be removed when on the campus, but that these materials belong in the recycle yard.

In the context of my study, discarded materials come to belong at the recycle yard based on the systematic ordering which they are subjected to. “Where there is dirt there is a system. Dirt is the by-product of a systematic ordering and classification of matter.”2 Thus, it is by the opinion and desire of individuals who dispose of materials that trash is produced. This process embodies the idea we discussed in class that “deconstruction is always reconstructive.” This trash is not inherently without value or without a place- rather, the place of trash emerges through this process of classification and physical organization.

As a result of this reconstructive act, discarded materials arrive at the recycle yard. This produces two major consequences; the ecosystem of the recycle yard, and the maintenance of civility and aesthetics for the broader college campus. Within the yard, the materials are the core of the people, work, and animals which gather there. Within those gates, people dedicate their efforts to maintaining the site, and some organisms live out their entire lives there. All of this transpires under the mission of maintaining a “clean” external environment; the campus. In accordance with Marisa Solomon’s “The Ghetto is a Gold Mine,” distance and disconnect are typical features of waste management from the sources of waste production.3 In describing her observations, Solomon explains that, “newness is a mark of progress and civility, while the old needs to be discarded. In both places, trash is evidence of a problem in need of fixing or of space, and people in need of cleaning.”4 In conversation with this quote, I believe the college may be promoting an image of progress and civility on its visible campus. Although the recycle yard and the waste it contains are located physically near to social areas, the space is concealed by the gates which surround it. Is this for the protection of unknowing students from potential hazards or for the appearance of the institution? 

Regardless of the reason for the gates, their presence is impactful. Mainly, they create a space where discarded materials belong, a space which maintains an image of civility and progress for the outside campus. What is the effect of these gates, however, when they are breached by students looking for a place to party? Those who work at the recycle yard are primarily locals of the college town or work-study students, both receiving very little pay for their work. The college at which this study was conducted, as an institution, is very privileged and wealthy, generally with a matching student population. Why then, would a space where employees sort through contaminated materials through rain, sleet, and all sorts of discomfort, be an appealing location to drink beers and party at? 

In Solomon’s piece, she shares how the doors from community member’s houses who had to abruptly leave their homes in Bed Stuy, were repurposed to sell to the up and coming white neighborhood of Clinton Hill.5 This example from Solomon elucidates how “trash can become trendy” when money, power, and privilege are components in play, as we discussed in class. In terms of my observations at the recycle yard and my observations from student Instagram posts of partying there after hours, I believe a similar phenomenon may be at play. This location dedicated to unwanted matter may become an inviting and “exotic” place to those who are merely visiting because of elements of money, power, and privilege.6 The recycle yard serves as a home to discarded and unwanted materials. Beyond this primary role, the recycle yard also extenuates aesthetics of progress and civility throughout the campus. In her work, Solomon drew a connection to waste management systems in Bed Stuy and missions of civility related to gentrification in the city. “[…]the collapsing power constitutive of trash as a category pulls waste as metaphor (social disorder, deviance, criminality) and waste as material objects (litter and debris) in proximity, if not a metonymic relationship, with one another.”7 In the context of the recycle yard, it is reasonable to suggest that the system not only organizes materials, but in doing so also contributes to the institution’s image of a good, orderly place. 

Mary Douglass’s idea of “good citizenship” conveniently adjoins to this concept. In her work, “good citizenship” refers to an ideology upheld in contrast to uncivil behaviors and activities perceived as a kind of dirty, social disease.8 Deviant social behaviors are then comparable to waste within society, and an ideal society is thus both a physically clean space and a morally “good” one. These ideas of Douglass and Solomon, when put together, build upon one another to convey an applicable perspective to my study. That being, a physically clean campus promotes belonging and membership to equally “clean” and civil individuals.

Not only does the recycle yard manage discarded materials, but it promotes the image of the college as a location of progress. The conditions of the recycle yard are discomfortable and unsightly, yet the concealment by the gates may be breached by students in search of an exotic and exciting location to take a load off. The recycle yard is a space not only of an internal ecosystem which the college relies on, but it functions as an invisible extremity which upholds images of civility and privileged belonging on the campus.