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Talkin’ Trash

  • News Image
    Kirk Kemnitz stands next to the research project he did on the life cycle of soccer balls.
  • News Image
    Macey Pool explains her research project on the life cycle of chewing gum.
  • News Image
    Caitlin Lacker, a student in Therese Shelton's First-Year Seminar on "Talkin' Trash," did her research project on how computers can be recycled.

New First-Year Seminar helps students learn there are alternatives to throwing things away

You wouldn’t think that something as small as a piece of chewing gum could be a problem, but first-year student Macey Pool has learned otherwise.  

Pool has learned, for example, that there are 125,000 tons of chewing gum on the ground and 850 tons of aluminum in landfills from gum wrappers – the equivalent of 60 million cans of soda.  

“Gum is the second largest litter item in the world,” she said.  

Pool is among the students taking a new First-Year Seminar taught by Therese Shelton, associate professor of mathematics. The seminar is titled “Talkin’ Trash.”  

“It’s a really cool class,” Pool said. “It makes you a lot more conscientious.”  

A self-described “recycling fiend,” Shelton said she decided to offer the class after seeing what is put in the trash on campus. “It’s so easy to just throw something away,” Shelton said. “Trash becomes invisible and we forget about it.”  

While trash it may be invisible, Shelton said it is not harmless. “We’re basically stockpiling waste in landfills, where chemicals ooze into the soil and water,” she said. “Landfills also produce methane that contributes to global warming. Animals are dying by eating plastic, especially in the oceans.” 

Shelton said the many different aspects related to trash – including the environment, economics, history, social justice and technology – make it a perfect topic for a First-Year Seminar, since those seminars are designed to introduce students to the interdisciplinary nature of the liberal arts and engage them in critical thinking.  

Over the summer, Shelton asked her students to read a novel titled Trash by Andy Milligan, which is about three boys in a Third World country who survive by picking through trash. The students also had to keep a diary of everything their family threw away for a week and write a reflection about it.  

Guest speakers included two students from Southwestern’s Community Garden, who explained more about the new composting options on campus to greatly reduce food waste, and senior Yvette Niyomugaba, who shared her original research on plastic recycling in Bangladesh which she is doing for an Honors Project under Shelton’s direction. Students volunteered in the Community Garden as a civic engagement project.

For their research paper, students in the class had to choose one item and learn more about the life cycle of that item. While Pool researched gum, other students chose items such as shoes, tires, prescription drugs, needles and plastic bottles. The students made posters based on their research papers that were displayed in the campus center.  

Kirk Kemnitz, who is a member of the soccer team, decided to learn more about what happens to soccer balls after they are thrown away.  

“I’ve been playing soccer my whole life and I’ve never thought much about the ball itself,” he said. “I go through one or two of them a year.”  

Kemnitz said he learned that there are several options to throwing away soccer balls. There are facilities that will take the balls apart and recycle the various materials they are made of such as rubber and plastic. There also are organizations that refurbish used soccer balls and send them to soccer leagues in countries such as Brazil. Some creative people have even turned old soccer balls into purses and planters.  

“The next time I need to throw away a ball, I will recycle it,” Kemnitz said. “I’m going to get my friends to do so as well.”  

Shelton said this is exactly the outcome she hoped the class would have. “Re-using and recycling are just good stewardship,” she said. “Developing thoughtful habits is part of lifelong learning.”