Trash Big Brothers at UMass Amherst

Ashley Thorne

Today at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, student volunteers garbed in hazmat suits will conduct a "trash sort" in which they slit open trashbags in selected residential buildings on campus and examine what has been thrown away. The exercise is intended to investigate whether students are discarding items that ought to be recycled. 

Here is the announcement from UMass Amherst:

*** MEDIA ADVISORY ***
 
DATE:           Monday, Oct. 1 (rain date is Oct. 3)
TIME:            10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
WHAT:          Trash Sort
WHERE:       UMass Amherst campus lawn south of Student Union
 
Haz-mat-suited Eco-Rep student volunteers for the sustainability program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst will conduct a trash sort on the lawn south of the Student Union on Monday, Oct. 1, to measure the success of student recycling practices and highlight areas that can be improved. 
 
Students will pick up bags of trash from each of the campus’s residence hall areas, slit them open and count how many recyclable objects and materials were thrown into the trash instead of being properly recycled, says Ezra Small of the campus sustainability initiative.
 
“The event will raise awareness about how our waste reduction efforts can continuously be improved and how the implementation of the new single stream recycling system should make it easier for all of us to recycle,” he adds.
 
The UMass Amherst Eco-Rep Program is a student-centered educational program that trains undergraduates to foster environmental literacy within the campus community and translate that new understanding into more sustainable behavior.
 
Something about this stunt is profoundly creepy. The idea of "haz-mat-suited eco-reps" rifling through trash evokes dystopian societies in which the private actions of private citizens are closely monitored and individuals are subject to punishment for their choices. UMass Amherst isn't out to punish its students, but the not-so-subtle message it is sending here is that those who do don't separate recyclables from trash are, first, wrong, and second, in need of reeducation in environmental literacy. The goal is "more sustainable behavior," and those who are bucking the system better fall in line. 
 
It is this kind of anti-personal-choice conduct that makes the campus sustainability movement, with its efforts to change daily habits, oppositional to the liberating purposes of higher education.
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