Katie Springer Forum Examines Waste

The sixth annual Katie Spring Forum opened with a question to the audience: "How much trash does an average Saint Mary's student produce in one day?" With that one question, students and faculty were introduced to the topic of the event, Waste-ology 101: The Science and Ethics of Trash.

The Katie Springer God and Science Forum was established in honor of Katie Springer, a Saint Mary's student who died in 2004. Each year, the forum seeks to understand issues from a faith and science perspective. This year's forum was also dedicated to professor Gerard Capriulo, the former chair of the Saint Mary's Biology department who died last November.

The forum opened with clips from the Academy Award-nominated documentary, "Recycled Life," which explores the garbage dump of Guatemala City, Guatemala. The dump is the largest of Central America and takes in one-third of the country's garbage. About 2,000 families, called Guajeros, live and work in the dump.

Following the film, Michael Barram, chair of the Theology/Religious Studies Department, and Ken Brown, chair of the Chemistry Department, held a panel discussion, with interim School of Science Dean Roy Wensley as moderator.

Brown explained that the dump is far behind the technologically advanced landfills found in developed countries. He noted that without proper ventilation, the breakdown of organic material leads to great buildups of methane gas, which is dangerous and unhealthy.

Economic factors lead to the creation of trash, which leads to ethical factors, Barram noted.

"From an ethical or religious standpoint, we have to look at fundamentally what gets produced and consumed," he said, adding that the ethics of a society that allows people to live in these conditions must be questioned.

"A person can't get to that point unless society allows a person to get to that point. There is a certain level of detachment."

While the living conditions of the Guajeros are miserable, the work they do in removing a million pounds of trash each day from the dump is important.

"What strikes me about it is that they are doing work that is useful," Brown said. "The government could employ those people while also creating a much safer environment. ... They don't have to live in the landfill to do (the work)."

At the end of the discussion, the audience learned that an average Saint Mary's student produces 4.67 pounds of trash per day. The number was based on the average amount of wet waste taken from the dining hall, 15 tons per week, and the amount of dry trash from the dorms, seven to eight tons per week. In comparison, an average student only recycles about half an ounce a day.

-- Caitlin Graveson '11