When Lisa Bjerke ’13, MPhil ’16 goes to a restaurant, she often takes along an empty glass container. What she doesn’t eat—the skin of a squash or the rind of an orange—she scoops into the jar to bring to her own compost bin. She also darns, patches—and encourages, cajoles, and admonishes one and all in her quest to reduce the inordinate amount of stuff wasted.

Lisa is COA’s resources guru and one of her gentle scolds is linguistic: “Waste is a verb,” she declares, “not a noun. It’s an action, not an object.” What we discard, she adds, are resources. Discarded resources. 

OK, so on one level, we’re talking about the, uh, discarded resource can beneath our kitchen sinks. But the quest to reduce wasting ranges from the most elemental of human actions (like the stuff that goes into that other can, the toilet), to the structure of our municipalities, the global economy, and ultimately the health of the planet as a whole.

This is not an exaggeration. What humans discard, experts warn, could eventually come close to burying us. Plastic containers are prime breeding grounds for mosquitoes; garbage piles harbor disease. Developed nations are only 7 percent of the world’s population but responsible for some 40 percent of all municipal solid waste, according to the World Bank. And much of it is organic, producing methane—some twenty-five times more potent in trapping atmospheric heat than carbon. The loss of space and resource to incinerators and landfills—and the toxicity—will only get worse as other nations aspire to our habits. The World Bank warns that by 2025 the municipal waste of our planet will double.

“If everyone lived as a COA student the world would need three planets,” says Lisa. Not that COA students are incorrigible wasters; still, we discard. COA should be a model, she adds. “If COA can’t do it, who can? We’re good, but we could go further with better infrastructure, more consciousness, and innovative ways to reduce wastage.” This powerhouse of action and passion would like to see the college be zero-waste by 2020.

Lisa hails from Sweden, where, a generation ago, school food scraps were routinely fed to local pigs. A Davis Scholar, she came to COA planning to study water issues. But this focus was nudged aside during her first term, when she and three other students looked into the school’s composting system for the Human Ecology Core Course.

“No one was in charge,” Lisa recalls. Most of the compost was slated for the farm, but who would get it there? “That’s when I realized that sustainability is not about technology; it’s about people.”

Lisa spent her workstudy time maintaining and improving COA’s composting system. Though she also took business and energy classes, and oversaw the installation of the solar charging station at the north end of campus, humanity’s discards gnawed at her. Seeking insights, she applied for and received a coveted Watson Fellowship, spending a year investigating systems in Germany, India, China, and Japan. Now she’s applying her increasing knowledge to campus as a candidate for a master’s in philosophy in human ecology, focused on discarded resources.

While also reading portions of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, and Philip K. Dick’s post-apocalyptic Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (the basis for the film Blade Runner), Lisa is studying ethnography to understand

how people interact with and view discarded materials. She wants to change how we function in our environment. Much of her work is hands-on, managing the day-today discarded-resource system, observing the community’s habits so as to develop systems that minimize harmful wasting.

Take special events. After witnessing a few receptions, Lisa saw guests’ confusion at just how to dispose of their food scraps, compostable flatware, paper plates, and napkins. Now every building where a special event might occur boasts a permanent discard station with clear signage. “In the beginning it seemed like an imposition,” says Millard Dority, director of campus buildings, planning, and public safety, who works closely with Lisa.”Now it’s part of the planning.”

Millard pauses. “She’s made life a lot more difficult here. You know how it is; you hide behind a time schedule.” Then he smiles. “It doesn’t really take much longer to try to save a lot of stuff.”

But to really know what’s being thrown out you have to see it, even count it. For the last two Octobers, Lisa has directed a discarded resources audit—assembling, weighing, and sorting every tissue and cellophane wrap tossed into recycling, compost, and trash. Though she found measurable improvement from 2014 to 2015, still about half the weight was organic matter—despite compost buckets in all on-campus houses and the composting bin a few minutes’ walk away at the community garden.

Also troubling were the papers and cardboard that ought to have been recycled. Though every floor, and every office on every floor, has a recycling bin, 75 percent of what was audited could be recycled, though only 45 percent actually had been.

And recycling, says Lisa, should be a last resort. When plastic, paper, or cardboard gets recycled, it’s downgraded and eventually wasted. Only glass doesn’t lose quality. The mantra of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle doesn’t cut it for her. To avoid drowning in stuff, Lisa expands the possibilities: Recover, Replenish, Repair, Remodel, Rethink, Restructure, Refuse, Remember, Research, Reach Out.

It’s all about changing people’s outlook—and offering options. The spring move-out from housing is a fraught time. The term, with its papers, exams, and farewells, ends on a Friday. Graduation is the next day—when students also need to be out of their rooms. Off-campus, some students must leave even earlier. Finding new homes for the pounds of bedding, books, and bottles accumulated over the year drops to the bottom of most priority lists. Last spring, Lisa assembled a team to assist. At announced times, vans and trucks circled through Bar Harbor, stopping by student apartments, exchanging cookies and coffee for clothing, furniture, even broken electronics.

Some items, like winter clothing, sheets, and towels, were held for international students who often arrive ill-equipped for Maine weather. More than five hundred pieces of clothing were donated to Goodwill and the local thrift store Serendipity, which is connected to the Bar Harbor food bank. Some furniture went to a summer program at the Peggy Rockefeller Farms. Much of the rest was stored on campus for incoming students this fall. “Every fall everyone wants to buy the reading lamp that we threw out in spring,” says Lisa. “We’re feeding the circle.”

The changes have spread throughout campus. Last summer, when Millard and his crew refashioned the ceramics studio into a general use space, they devised a new system. Even before beginning the reconstruction, all resources were inventoried. “In the past, we’d say, we’ve got to tear this wall down; if there’s some wood we can  save, we’ll save it.” Renting a construction dumpster would be a given. This time there was no dumpster. So much of what was inside the building was reused, recycled, or composted—with remaining art supplies donated to an Ellsworth arts organization—that there was only one trip to the dump. “Lisa has changed the face of the way we regard discards,” Millard says. “These are resources, not waste or garbage. It’s really opened our eyes—she has shown us that we can go to another level.”

As humans struggle to live sustainably on our one planet, such local efforts expand the conversation, offering a  sense of possibility and momentum to those seeking solutions across the globe.

To follow this work on campus visit the Discard Stories facebook page.