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For students, one person's trash is another person's research

Arizona State University student Melissa Merrick sorts trash into some of the 44 bins used for a study by ASU's School of Sustainability. (Xi Chen/Cronkite News Service)

PHOENIX -- Arizona State University student Melissa Merrick started a recent day pulling wires, plastic bottles and bags and anything else that could be recycled or reused from 6,000 pounds of garbage.

All for research.

"It brings to light how much trash is actually recyclable and gives people an idea of how much trash does accumulate throughout the day," said Merrick, joining others taking part in a study conducted by ASU's School of Sustainability.

It was the sixth time since August that the group had sorted through trash from two SRP buildings in Tempe. Working at a City of Phoenix garbage transfer station, five students and nine faculty members carefully sorted items into 44 bins designated for different types of trash.

The goal of the Waste System Characterization Study, conducted in collaboration with SRP and the Phoenix Public Works Department: keeping items that can be reused out of landfills.

"It's eye-opening," said Jessica Groeneveld, project coordinator at Sustainability Solutions Extension Service, part of ASU's Walton Sustainability Solutions Initiative.

"Without our students and faculty members looking at what people are throwing away, the folks at SRP won't realize what they are putting into a trash can," she said. "All of these could have gone to landfill, and luckily we are able to pull stuff out to get another chance to recycle."

John Hetrick, SRP's manager of sustainability policy and programs, said the project will help the utility put in place programs and activities that reinforce sustainability.

"We expect to see a distribution of the types of waste that are coming out of our buildings and to use it to find opportunities to reduce waste," he said.

Yvette Roeder, spokeswoman for the Phoenix Public Works Department, which provided facilities and transportation for the project, said the study will help the city provide better service.

"The outcome of their findings will certainly help not only the city of Phoenix to learn how people recycle, what people throw away and adjust what we could offer to our customers, but what they found out can be shared with the rest of the region," Roeder said.

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