From bin to landfill: the story of waste management at Occidental

Michael Reyes drives around lower campus every morning to collect trash from academic buildings. Wed, Oct. 16, 2019. Kathy Ou/The Occidental

Out of the bin

Sandra Abrica, a member of the cleaning staff, and Raquel Sanchez, a cleaning staff supervisor, looked through their respective keyrings in the first-floor men’s bathroom of the Arthur G. Coons Administrative Center (AGC). After trying multiple keys each to open the paper towel disposal bin to collect the waste, they realized the key Abrica normally uses was broken.

The sound of keys clanking, plastic bags rustling and doors opening and shutting had resonated through the hallways earlier that morning around 6 a.m., as Abrica and three other members of the cleaning staff made their way through the suites and offices of the AGC. Part of the cleaning staff’s job is to take out the trash and recycling and put new liners in the bins, according to Sanchez.

The cleaning staff is one of three groups of workers that directly interact with waste produced at the college. The process of collecting and sorting trash, recycling and green waste requires collaboration between departments at Occidental, as well as with an off-campus company, Universal Waste Systems (UWS).

Sanchez oversees the cleaning staff and said she has worked at Occidental for six years, first as a temporary worker. She said she has had to wake up at 3 a.m. ever since she became a full-time worker three years ago. As she drove to the AGC from the Facilities office at 5:45 a.m. to meet Abrica, Sanchez said, she was still not used to waking up so early.

In the AGC, four members of the cleaning staff — including Maria Elena Ramirez, a member of the cleaning staff who has been working at Occidental for 16 years — reached under desks to collect waste from each individual trash and recycling bin and put new plastic liners in each bin.

Mario Bonilla, the cleaning services manager, said the college employs about 35 cleaning staff workers who are involved in collecting trash and recycling. He said around two hours of each worker’s shift are dedicated to collecting waste.

“It all depends on the size of the building,” Bonilla said. “I believe two hours a day is what, at least, it requires — what we allocate just for the trash removal.”

Given the large quantity of waste produced on campus, collecting waste places a high physical demand on workers, according to Bonilla. He said when waste from many different bins is combined, it can become very heavy.

“For my staff, it’s labor-intensive,” Bonilla said. “Imagine someone working in the AGC building where there is more than 100 individual offices, and then each individual office has a recycling container and a trash container. So, imagine bending yourself more than 200 times a day. Those repetitive motions are what gets injuries.”

Bonilla said that to mitigate the intensity of waste collection, trash and recycling are only collected from the academic and administrative buildings every other day and not on weekends. Workers collect waste from residence halls daily, including weekends, according to Bonilla. Between three and five staff members are scheduled each weekend to collect residence hall waste and monitor other areas on campus where trash and recycling bins are frequently used.

According to Bonilla, some faculty request that their trash and recycling be collected daily.

“We make arrangements because, at the end of the day, it will be a couple of them versus the whole community,” Bonilla said.

Sanchez said the busiest time of day for the cleaning staff is between 5:30 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. since the workers try to have the academic and administrative buildings completely cleaned before 8 a.m., when students, faculty and administrators start to come into the buildings. However, the process of waste collection is ongoing. When Abrica’s key would not open the paper towel dispenser, she and Sanchez decided that specific trash bin would have to be cleaned out later in the day.

“She’ll come back later and do it,” Sanchez said.

After Abrica collects all the waste from the first floor of the AGC, she piles it into a large bin with wheels and loads it onto an elevator in the Document Output/Creative Services (DOCS) office. She then unloads the trash and recycling bags into dumpsters located above the DOCS office, which are eventually collected by the grounds department. In other buildings, the bags of compiled waste are set outside on the sidewalk for the grounds department to collect, according to Sanchez.

Sanchez said there are a few safety issues associated with trash collection. She said when workers feel rushed, they sometimes reach into the trash and recycling bins to remove contamination without putting on gloves first. The supervisors try to remind workers not to do this, since there could be broken glass or other hazards in the bins, according to Sanchez.

Sanchez said the cleaning staff takes pride in their work and are bothered sometimes when they find loose trash on the floor soon after they have cleaned. Ramirez told Sanchez she specifically notices when food gets on the floor.

“[People] will come eating without a plate,” Sanchez said. “The crumbs are on the floor and it looks kind of awkward because it looks like no one has cleaned.”

Sanchez said Ramirez often works alone in Johnson, but she tries to schedule another worker to help her twice a week since the building is so big. Even when working alone, the sound of music from a radio Ramirez carries with her while she cleans fills the space.

To the dumpster

Grounds Manager Lola Trafecanty said once the cleaning staff puts the bags of waste outside the buildings, Michael Reyes, a member of the grounds team, drives around campus and collects all of the bags in the bed of his truck. Reyes then takes these bags either to dumpsters located on Mount Fiji or to the Facilities office, where there are trash and recycling compactors, as well as a cardboard baler.

Reyes starts his workday at 6:30 a.m in the Facilities office. He said some members of the grounds department get to work early so they can have a cup of coffee and chat before work.

Reyes started at Occidental as a temporary worker in cleaning services about two years ago. He transferred to his current full-time position in grounds one year ago. Reyes said many of his coworkers have worked at Occidental for 15–20 years and that some have been at the college for over 40 years. According to Trafecanty, Reyes is the only person currently employed by grounds to collect trash and recycling.

Often, Reyes’ first task of the morning is to compress and bundle leftover cardboard waste from the day before using the baler machine. Usually, there is enough cardboard for about one bale — or around 800 pounds — per day, according to Reyes. Reyes said a lot of the cardboard he collects are boxes discarded by Campus Dining. Trafecanty said the grounds department is able to make a small amount of money from selling this cardboard.

Next, Reyes drives to Collins House, the Child Development Center and finally the quad. Reyes said he tries to collect trash from areas in the order that people usually arrive at them.

“A lot of parents dropping off their kids don’t want to see trash,” Reyes said.

Reyes said he also has to plan when he collects trash from different locations based on when the cleaning staff finishes cleaning those areas. Otherwise, Reyes said, he has to retrace his route and collect trash from the same location multiple times. He said this requires him to be observant and vigilant.

Reyes said he sometimes notices groups of crows pecking at trash bags that are sitting outside, which causes the bags to rip open and the trash to spill out. Reyes said he has to attend quickly to problems that arise, like the crows, while trying to maintain a consistent route.

After navigating his truck through the quad and past Rush Gymnasium, Reyes decided to check the dumpster behind the Samuelson Alumni Center. He found a few cardboard boxes on the ground by the dumpster.

“I’m glad I came,” Reyes said. “Those would have been sitting there all day.”

Reyes said he tries to get to know students on campus. He has two daughters and said that makes him sympathetic to students.

“You [students] are just starting your lives — anything I can do to help, I will,” Reyes said. “[The students] motivate me to work harder.”

At the landfill

In July 2017, recycLA, a City of LA public-private waste management partnership, awarded the family-owned and operated company UWS contract rights for the Northeast LA district. According to Jenna Tatoulian, sustainability and compliance manager for UWS, this happened after the city of LA established recycLA as part of its goal to reduce the amount of waste going into the city’s already overwhelmed landfills. The city’s main goal is to reduce this waste by 1 million tons per year by 2025, according to UWS’s website.

According to Jonathan Jaime, the operations manager for UWS, three different trucks with one to two workers each come to Occidental’s campus weekly to pick up trash, recycling and green waste in the dumpsters on Mount Fiji. The truck drivers then take the trash to a UWS landfill in either Sunshine Canyon or Chiquita Canyon, according to Jaime, and bring recycling to a facility in Santa Fe Springs to be sorted. Tatoulian said truck drivers take green waste to Glen Valley.

According to Tatoulian, UWS worked with Occidental’s former sustainability coordinator Jenny Low to eliminate food waste contamination in recycling bins and now meets with both Trafecanty and Bonilla to discuss the college’s waste management processes. Low said she and the Oxy Public Health Club tried to improve signage about trash, recycling and green waste in the residence halls to limit contamination.

Tatoulian said contamination in waste creates a big problem, though Occidental has worked to mitigate it.

“Overall, it’s a problem because the truck would take it to a facility and the facility would reject it,” Tatoulian said. “Then the driver has to take time to take it to another facility.”

Tatoulian said students can help limit contamination by sorting their waste carefully and choosing to donate large items, especially when moving out of the residence halls.

“I would hope that students can source separate the best that they can and take the time to do so. It’s so easy to get rid of all your waste and put it in one bin and not think about what happens to it,” Tatoulian said. “Someone somewhere is being affected by it.”

Bonilla said he hopes more people will become aware of the importance of sorting their waste correctly.

“I think we need more education — not just for students but for everybody,” Bonilla said. “There’s a lot of items that we can recycle, but we’re not recycling them.”

Finishing the Cycle

After waste is discarded in one of the many bins on campus, it goes through a collection and sorting process that involves many workers using equipment as simple as gloves and as complex as garbage trucks. In the end, some of Occidental’s waste is taken over 60 miles away by UWS drivers. For on-campus staff, the process of waste collection can require spending early mornings working alone.

Reyes said most mornings, he is alone in the truck while picking up the bags of trash and recycling. He said he has come to recognize many of the people he sees during his morning route, including students, faculty and administrators, as well as local residents who often walk on campus.

“I have a lot of compassion for people,” Reyes said. “They all know me.”

As Reyes was getting out of the truck to collect a bag of trash outside Rush Gymnasium, he saw a local resident walking two dogs and paused to say hello.

“Even the dogs know me,” Reyes said.