LOS ANGELES — Shopping at zero waste refill stores, taking the Metro and reducing his climate footprint as much as possible are all part of Josh Rebello’s low waste lifestyle.
“The focus of my life is low waste,” said Rebello, 26, who has a degree in sustainability, food, farming and packaging from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
While studying sustainability, Rebello was particularly drawn to waste management, an area he said is misunderstood and not often discussed.
“Everyone generates [waste]… when you put it into a bin it disappears, and that’s where people stop thinking about it,” he said.
Therefore, Rebello has dedicated his career to helping more people understand what happens to waste once it goes into the bin. Rebello is a zero-waste auditor at the University of Southern California, a new position at the school. Rebello and USC’s other zero waste auditor, Nick Belgrave, look through trash collected at many waste sites throughout the university.
By understanding and observing what students are discarding, Rebello and Belgrave endeavor to reduce the amount of waste produced on campus.
This year, USC installed multi-stream bins with options for compost, landfill and recycling. They found that there continues to be confusion about what type of trash goes into each bin.
“A lot of people don’t know things need to be separated, or they don’t understand how to separate it. It might be different types of plastic or it might be plastic wrapped in paper,” Rebello said.
Much of Rebello and Belgrave’s work focuses on the USC Village, which is full of restaurants that offer different types of take-out. As a result, there is considerable take-out and trash. The new streamlined bins are dotted around the Village.
Still, with so many different types of containers, Rebello often sees recyclables in the landfill bin or compostable food in the recycling.
One container or plastic cup can feel insignificant, but individuals make an impact. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, on average each person in the U.S. produces 4.9 pounds of trash per day. In 2018, 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste were thrown away in the U.S., and 50% went to landfills.
Often, recyclable and compostable trash ends up in landfills adding to the greenhouse gasses, a wasted opportunity, Rebello points out.
“These are all resources that can be reused. When you recycle, it can get turned into a park bench or another bottle or clothing. Paper can become another paper bag… when we throw it away you lose it,” Rebello said.
While auditing and examining trash is one piece of the auditor’s work, another element is education. Rebello and Belgrave regularly set up a table during lunch, offering information sessions, educating students about which types of trash go into the various containers. They’re also working to see what signs, pamphlets and waste bins work best and lead to the most sustainable behaviors.
“Do we have the tools in place? The auditors are the biggest part of that, going into the buildings, to the exterior and seeing, how easy is it for people to dispose of it correctly… it helps us identify what programs we need to start on campus,” said Gina Whisenant, USC’s Waste and Recycling supervisor who intends to expand the waste auditor team to 20 over the next five years.
The school has a goal of reaching zero waste by 2028. For the university, zero waste means that 90% of trash is recycled correctly. It’s an ambitious goal, but Rebello sees the challenge as an opportunity.
"These are people who will be going out to the real world in one to four years," Rebello said. "They’re going to bring what they learn here with them. It will help spread sustainability and if I can help get the campus or the world to that, it would be pretty amazing."