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Garbage as a Tool for Student Engagement in Service-Learning


service learningDr. Brian Thomas is an associate professor of Sociology at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan.  He received his Ph.D. in Sociology from Michigan State University and has a M.S. in Environmental Studies from the University of Oregon. Dr. Thomas’s research interests are in the areas of food, agriculture, and the environment with a particular focus on food deserts in urban areas.  Dr. Thomas often uses service-learning in classes ranging from Environmental Sociology to Introduction to Sociology.  You can learn more about Dr. Thomas at

Our university had a problem. Students were throwing garbage into the recycling bins and recycling into the garbage bins. I had a problem. As a sociologist, I wanted students to understand that their individual decisions were influenced by and also had an impact on larger social structures and the environment. What better way to solve both problems then to have students go dumpster diving weigh garbage as a service-learning project?  While I confess that I found significant amusement in the gross factor and we generated some truly popular “SVSU Dumpster Dive Team” t-shirts, after holding this event every semester for over two years I think we have developed a low-cost, scalable, and educational project that can easily be replicated at other schools.  Consequently, I think it is something worth sharing.

service learningProject Format
Typically, we have run the activity during a single 80 minute class period using approximately 30 students.  Within one class period, 30 students can generally process about 100 pounds of garbage using this method, although this can vary significantly based on the type of garbage and weather on that day. Prior to class, students are divided into groups according to material type (e.g. plastic, glass, metal, food waste, etc.)  They are also given some basic instruction into the procedures that they would following on “Dive Day.”  Prior to class, we prepare a grassy area near a university garbage dumpster and recycling bin by stretching two tarpaulins on the ground and staking there.  We also lay out necessary materials, such as trash bags, rakes, shovels, and a digital scale.  As students arrive, they are provided with required protective glove and optional shoe covers and aprons.

After some final instructions, students begin by carrying bags from either the recycling bin or garbage dumpster over to the tarps where they are split open.  Standing in a circle around the now open garbage bags, students work in pairs and begin filling new garbage bags based on the material type they were originally assigned. As students fill garbage bags, they carry them to a team of students who are charged with weighing and recording the material type.

service learningIn this case, the community that we are serving is the university community. The university has benefitted in three ways from this ongoing project. The first benefit has been the actual data collected. University contracts for garbage and recycling are based on tipping fees associated with the frequency with which dumpsters and bins are emptied. Until now, estimates of how frequently dumpsters and bins must be emptied has been based on spot checks of how full or empty they are at various times during the week.  While this has been adequate for basic scheduling, it has not provided any information about the content of dumpsters and bins. This has allowed us to provide real estimates to the university regarding how quickly dumpsters and bins are being filled along with what they are being filled with.

The second benefit this project has provided to the university relates directly to this quantification of material types, particularly of the garbage dumpsters. As our university has begun to explore ways to increase its sustainability, recycling has been identified as one way of reducing the footprint of the campus. The data provided by our service-learning project has provided baseline data that can be then used to assess the impact of educational or other behavioral modification programs.

The final benefit of this project to the university community has been through the marketing of the importance of recycling to students on campus. We have intentionally conducted the Dumpster Dive in public areas, especially near living centers, so that we have the opportunity to engage students in discussion about the importance of recycling as they walk by.  We have used t-shirts and sought publicity in the student newspaper as a means to ensure the sustainability remains part of the public discourse on campus. We have even partnered with other classes to create documentaries and create promotional flyers and posters about the activity.


service learningStudent Learning

Of course, any good service-learning project will ensure that students have the opportunity to engage in reflection on the activity as it relates to curriculum. While I have used a variety of classes as part of the activity, I typically utilize either a 100 level introduction to sociology class or a 200 level global cultures class.  Both class are sociology classes and have students from a variety of majors.

For both classes, I sought to highlight the cumulative impact of individual actions. Put simply, students do not often realize how small things add up.  After initially overcoming some assumptions about how “gross” the project will be, students find themselves shocked at the relatively mundane nature of much of the garbage. To be honest, most of it is simply paper and plastic that could easily have been recycled.  As bag after bag of recyclable paper and plastic are recovered from the garbage dumpsters, students voice surprise that their relatively small individual activity of tossing some leftover homework into the garbage can have such a significant cumulative effect.

Since both classes are sociology classes, I also use videos and movies prior to the Dumpster Dive to illustrate the idea of a consumer culture. For the introduction class, I simply focus on the relationship among a consumer culture, social class, and the environment.  For the global cultures class, I also talk about the globalization of western culture. By having to, quite literally, sink their hands into the material remnants of their own culture, it forces them to confront the disposable, and in many cases, unnecessary elements of their own cultural practices. 

The “gross” factor gets their attention and the follow-up reflection paper helps them relate their feelings to the larger learning objectives of the class and broader social concerns related to waste disposal. Reflection paper comments commonly include remarks like “Overall, this project taught me a great deal about the habits of my fellow classmates and how much they don’t realize what they throw away can be recycled” and “it is extremely apparent after sorting through the SVSU garbage, that there is a large problem with the amount of garbage being thrown in dumpsters.” Another student noted “Even though a lot of paper is used at SVSU, I was still surprised to find so much that was actually thrown away instead of recycled.”

Why Garbage?
service learningAs instructors who are interested in service-learning, it is a constant challenge to identify projects that fit within the time and resource constraints of our respective schools. I have found this project to be extremely flexible in terms of both.  First, the only materials required for the project are gloves, tarps, garbage bags, and a scale.  Other useful, but perhaps not required material, include rakes, shovels, shoe covers and aprons.  Much of this material can be reused after a thorough hosing off and require little space to store.  All of the materials are widely available and relatively inexpensive. Needless to say, the garbage is free.

I also think that the scalability of the activity cannot be understated. While we have typically used 30 students with one or two supervisors who are weighing a single dumpster or recycling bin, the format could be easily adapted to different class or school sizes. One semester, we even experimented with sending a small team around campus to do “mini-dives” of the conventional garbage cans located throughout campus.  We have even worked with Dining Services to do a Dumpster Dive: Dining Services Edition so that they could get a sense of the amount of food that students were throwing away from our cafeteria.

I also believe that this project could be easily used in classes in other disciplines. Certainly environmental science or studies classes would be interested in the data that could be collected. Even mathematics or statistics classes could play a critical role in compiling and analyzing the weights of the different materials.  Already we have utilized writing classes to generate literature that we have distributed to students during the events.

Fundamentally, service-learning projects are about creating opportunities for students to engage with learning in a way that benefits their communities.  Quantification of garbage is a community-level data need that is often left unfilled due to its labor intensive nature, despite the fact that little skill or training is required. After all, it is one of the few ways of studying human behavior that does not require approval by a Human Subjects Board.  At the same time, I can promise you that, while students are not always enthusiastic about it, digging through garbage definitely gets students engaged.

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