Campus News

New disposal initiative at Union South puts waste on display

The Office of Sustainability and a team of UW-Madison students have partnered to create an art campaign aimed at informing students about proper waste disposal. 

Image By: Brandon Moe

What began as a research project for Bret Shaw’s Life Sciences Communications class transformed into an art display poised to change how UW-Madison students throw away trash.

After analyzing waste at Union South, as well as conducting in-person observations, one-on-one interviews and a survey to determine typical waste disposal behaviors and intentions, students from Shaw’s “Public Information Campaigns and Programs” class determined people did not know how to properly dispose of their waste.

“We were able to really focus on what people were confused about,” Shaw said. “People were super confused about bio boxes, for example. The Union spends extra because they are compostable, but almost everyone throws them in the trash.”

In fact, they seemed to be confused about what was disposable and what wasn’t in general.

A trash audit last week found that only five of the 124 bio box food containers were properly composted, according to Nathan Jandl, the communications director for the Office of Sustainability.

Shaw’s students presented ideas on how to fix this issue and eventually partnered with UW-Madison’s Office of Sustainability, the art department, the Wisconsin Union and other university departments to create an art campaign promoting proper waste disposal. Shadow boxes and artistic plastic arrows highlighting the proper ways to dispose of waste now hang in Union South.

Additionally, there are now color-coded stickers on food containers and disposal bins to help people identify where products are supposed to be deposited.

“[The project] is really combining art, social marketing and strategic communication in order to basically get people to sort the waste better at Union South, but it is an idea that can be translated wherever,” Shaw said. “Between the stickers and the shadow boxes, it should dispel most confusion.”

The Office of Sustainability and a team of UW-Madison students will conduct another trash audit next week. Shaw says that with the new art and signs signaling the proper disposal locations, he is confident there will be an improvement in accurate disposal rates.

“I strongly think we will have a statistically significant difference,” Shaw said. “Will it completely solve the problem? No. Do I think it will improve it? Absolutely, yes.”

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