LSC students present Union South waste stream study at UW Undergrad Symposium

Students conducted a trash audit of the waste stream at Union South as a part of their project. Pictured here are (left to right) Shelby Kuenzli, Nikki Rasmussen, Sam Marquardt, Madeline Fischer, Bret Shaw, and Maria Castillo. Photo: UW-Madison LSC.

A few months ago, UW–Madison senior Sam Marquardt spent part of a day at Union South digging through the trash.

Last Thursday, Marquardt and classmates Rhianna Miles and Caroline Mitchell were back at Union South, this time to present their findings at the 2017 Undergraduate Symposium. The effort to study the waste stream at Union South illustrates how a lot of the research on display at the symposium has immediate, real-world value, said Bret Shaw, an associate professor in the Department of Life Sciences Communication and the mentor for the project. The waste stream at the student unions was contaminated to the point where something needed to be done, he said.

The symposium, dubbed “a celebration of undergraduate research,” showcases talent from across the campus. A record 683 students took part this 19th year, representing 496 projects. Of those, most were presented as either poster displays or talks.

Students in Shaw’s class studied the waste issue in multiple ways—in-person observations, a survey, one-on-one interviews and the trash audit.

“We learned that most people care about recycling and composting and want to do better, but they don’t always have the knowledge and know-how, so they get very confused,” Marquardt said.

In five bags of recycling, for instance, the students found more than 100 pieces of plastic silverware. The utensils are not recyclable.

After the students studied the problem as a class, they broke into teams to brainstorm solutions. The winning plan by Marquardt and his research partners includes a social media educational effort and stickers on items that explicitly say “recyclable” or “compostable.”

Union South management is reviewing all the student recommendations and plans to implement some of them, Shaw said.

Read more about the Undergraduate Symposium on the UW-Madison news website.