Student researchers find littering is problem on UW-River Falls campus

Posted February 8, 2017

A research project conducted by two students shows that, despite its reputation as a sustainable university, UW-River Falls has a problem with littering that may be ingrained in campus culture.

“Our original plan was just to see where the trash was located on campus, and then compare it to where, like, the trash can locations were, and to see if we had adequate trash cans,” said Kalley Swift, one of the two student researchers. Swift is a junior history and geography double major with minors in geographic information science (GIS) and cartography. Kirsten Schmidt is the other researcher and is a senior field biology major with a GIS minor. The project was part of the requirements for the class “Field Methods and Global Positioning System,” which they took under Assistant Professor Matt Dooley from the Geography and GIS Department.

“I didn’t think there was gonna be enough data,” said Dooley, who also served as the faculty mentor for the project. “I didn’t think there was much trash on campus because it’s picked up. They went ahead and proved me wrong, big time.”

The original project was largely a fact-gathering process, and involved Swift and Schmidt walking around campus to collect pieces of trash. According to a poster they presented at the URSCA (Undergraduate Research, Scholarly and Creative Activity) Fall Gala in December, in two weeks they found more than 800 pieces of trash and recyclables that ranged from coffee cups and candy wrappers to cigarettes and alcohol bottles.

“I found, like, a broken bong, once,” said Schmidt. “That was kind of gross.”

With every item, they would mark and save the location coordinates using a GPS receiver, and upload those locations to a map. On their poster, they created two separate maps: a heat map that shows the concentrations of garbage as orange and red splotches, and a spatial analysis map that represents each trash item and each trash receptacle on campus as a single dot. In order to assess whether each trash item could have made it into a nearby trash or recycling bin, Schmidt and Swift assigned each receptacle a “buffer zone” of 100 feet, and marked these zones on the spatial analysis map as blue circles that surround the bins.

“We originally chose 50-foot buffer zones,” said Swift, “but when we went out and tested the walking distance at a trash can we realized that 50 feet would be too constricting and people should be capable of walking more than that to throw away their trash. We also measured out 75-foot, 125-foot, and 150-foot buffer zones before determining that a 100-foot buffer zone was the most adequate.”

According to the maps, almost anywhere a person goes on campus they will be within roughly 100 feet of a trash or recycling bin. What this shows, Swift said, is that the litter they found is not the result of a lack of receptacles. Rather, it is more of a cultural problem.

“I think in general we’re more of kind of like a ‘throw away’ culture. If something doesn’t work anymore, it’s like, ‘Oh, well, I’m gonna just throw it out and get a new one’,” said Swift. “Even if you see a trash can, you don’t want to put that effort in, even to walk that hundred feet.”

A study by Keep America Beautiful in 2009 shows results similar to what Schmidt and Swift found. After making observations at 130 locations across the United States (118 of which had at least one trash receptacle in the area), the study recorded that out of almost 2,000 instances of garbage disposal, 17 percent resulted in littering.

This attitude, Schmidt said, may have a lot to do with litterers not fully understanding the impacts of their actions: “I think, being a field biology major, I’ve taken a lot of environmental science classes, so I’ve seen what happens when, like, birds pick up the trash and put it in their nests… So I think if, maybe, certain majors don’t get that, so they don’t understand what happens with the trash.”

Schmidt and Swift will be continuing work on their project as they prepare for the National Conference for Undergraduate Research, which will be held in April in Memphis, Tennessee. They plan to expand their research into the cultural aspect of littering, and to compare their results at UWRF to other campuses, other times of the year and different types of locations such as parks and residential areas.