Trash mountain highlights recycling and waste for NU’s Earth Day festivities

By Jia You

A gray and chilly April morning didn’t deter Lizzy Conger from waving and shouting “Recycle!” to the passers-by,  costumed in her suit made of hundreds of plastic bags. She revved up the recycling mantra for Earth Day at Northwestern University’s Evanston campus on Wednesday. Behind Conger loomed a pyramid of white plastic bags filled with used cardboards, half-eaten pizza and all the junk a campus collects every day.

For the second year, Conger volunteered to play the “plastic bag monster” in front of Mt. Trashmore, an annual Earth Day tradition installed at the university to raise awareness of campus waste. Along Sheridan Road, cars honked and students stopped as they passed by the 8-foot high pile of trash, collected over a period of six hours from the Technological Institute waste cans the day before and heading to a landfill afterward.

“To see such a visible representation of ‘this is how I contribute to that mountain (of trash) every single day’ – I think, can be pretty enlightening for people,” said Conger, a graduate student in chemical engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering.

The first Mt. Trashmore popped up on campus on Earth Day in 2008. Members of Engineers for a Sustainable World—an environmental student group that Conger belongs to—suggested the idea to Julie Cahillane, the school’s manager of sustainability and resource management. At the time, the university was accumulating 10 tons of campus waste a day, Cahillane said.

“It’s a crazy idea, and it just works,” she said. “So we’ve been doing it ever since.”

Over the years, the mountain has steadily shrunk, Cahillane said. This year, the campus generated 9.2 tons of trash every day and recycled 5 tons of materials, up from 4.3 tons last year. That puts Northwestern University in the middle range of schools across the country when it comes to recycling, she said.

Reaching beyond that requires the university to tackle bigger recycling projects, Cahillane said. Unlike state schools, Northwestern doesn’t have an office of surplus operations to manage the recycling of larger assets such used furniture. The school recently took a step in that direction by arranging for mattress suppliers to pick up old mattresses when they bring new ones to the dorms, she said, but more could be done.

“Without surplus operations, … you are going to lose a lot of stuff that you could be recycling,” she said.

Every day actions matter too. In front of Mt. Trashmore, student volunteers handed out refillable water bottles and reusable bags, and others joined them in raising awareness on sustainable habits. The university’s Roosevelt Institute for Public Policy is hosting a No Impact Challenge throughout the week, inviting students to track the number of disposable items they use daily.

Also on Wednesday night, students from McCormick’s environmental policy and culture program organized an Earth Day celebration at the Technological Institute, featuring the wide range of environmental student groups on campus.

Project Survival poster (University Archives)
Project Survival poster (Northwestern University Archives)

Neal Blair, director of the program, said the event showcased diverse ways for people to relate to the environment—not just through scientific studies but also through stories and songs, such as Earth Day anthems.

“My mantra is, no one owns the environment but everyone is a stakeholder,” he said.

The celebration also looked back at Northwestern University’s roots in the nation’s environmental movement. On January 23, 1970, three months before the first Earth Day, a student-organized public “teach-out” attracted thousands of people to the Technological Institute to spend the night speaking out against environmental problems such as water pollution and overpopulation. Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb, participated.

During the celebration Wednesday evening, students sang “Whose Garden Was This?,” a song composed by folk singer Tom Paxton for the Northwestern “teach-out.” That song became an anthem for the first Earth Day.

“It’s a great way to show off Northwestern University’s rich history with Earth Day, and how it began,” said Conger,  who participated in the performance.

Photo at top: McCormick graduate student Lizzy Conger dresses up as “plastic bag monster” on Earth Day to raise awareness on recycling.