Christine Haney, a lecturer for Environmental Studies Orientation at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has her students study waste through a hands-on approach: putting on latex gloves and going through the trash piece by piece.

Since 2015, Haney and the Environmental Studies 101 class have been digging through the trash at Lincoln Public Schools. The activity, called a waste audit, is an effort to get an idea of how much of the garbage being thrown away is recyclable and how to reduce food waste, according to Dave Gosselin, director of Environmental Studies.

Haney said the study takes waste from classrooms and lunchrooms and analyzes what can be recycled, what can be composted and what can’t be recycled or composted.

Haney said she started doing waste audits as a way to get her students out of the classroom. Since this class is only a one credit hour course, she said she wanted to maximize its impact. Since a waste audit requires no actual training on the part of the students, she decided that this was the best course of action.

Haney got in contact with LPS sustainability coordinator Brittney Albin to come up with some ways in which the students could gain experience in this area and aid the efforts of LPS. 

Since then, she said the Environmental Studies program has been recognized by the U.S. Building Council’s Center for Green Schools as among the nation’s Best of Green Schools

Most of the challenges Haney faces are related to organization. She starts working four to five months before the audit by identifying schools that the class will audit and figuring out how many students will be able to take part in each audit. Haney said it’s a lot easier setting up audits now than it was when she started.

The study has taken place every spring and fall semester since its inception, Gosselin said. Depending on the class size, the students split up into six groups of nine students, and each group audits one school. Most of the time they visit high schools, but they occasionally go to a middle or elementary school.

Since the the full class is 41 students, they can’t cover all 59 public schools in Lincoln, so they go to schools on a rotation, according to Gosselin

Gosselin said the process is pretty straightforward. Anything that is traditionally recyclable, like paper or plastic, is considered recyclable in the audit, and all foods are listed as compostable.

According to Gosselin, the spring semester class only has about 20 students, so they can’t visit as many schools as they can during the fall semester.

Haney said the biggest benefits of the project are that it shows students they can make a difference, and the university outreach builds stronger partnerships that wouldn’t be possible by other means.

Gosselin said it’s important to have real people solve real problems with real solutions. He said providing students with hands-on experience also improves the effectiveness of the program. 

“It’s a hands-on activity, where they’re actually looking at … a waste stream,” Gosselin said. “[One could] talk about setting up an organization or a recycling program or a waste program [for a public school].”

Haney said the class is a way to show students the effect of their waste and recycling decisions. She said the activity leads students to have discussions about what could be done differently and how they can incite change.

““There’s a special kind of satisfaction that comes from doing work with your hands,” she said. “Waste audits are not my students’ favorite activity, but each and every one feels like they’ve done ‘good’... even if they never want to find themselves elbow deep in yogurt or spaghetti again.”