Lisa Bjerke ’13, MPhil ’17Lisa Bjerke ’13, MPhil ’17

Bjerke is building a career on how people think about and engage with trash, or what she prefers to call, “discarded resources.” The study is the subject of her Human Ecology Masters work at COA, and has long been an area of focus. A self-described “garbologist,” Bjerke traveled the world studying waste management practices on a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, and she is working to transform the way people at this small school handle their relationship to waste. 

“How we engage with the materials we discard is essential to how we engage with the world around us,” says Bjerke. “Using the term ‘discarded resources’ force us to reflect on the structures we live within and our roles within them. If we can acknowledge that waste is a subjective word, just like beauty, we can see that all the materials we currently call waste are actually discarded resources, with values that we are ignoring. It is important to care about what we dispose of since 40% of our domestic green house gas emissions come from the consumption of products and food.”

On November 7th, Bjerke will share her experiences and visionary ideas for dealing with waste in a new way at the annual TedxDirigo talks in Portland.

In her fourth year as an undergraduate, Bjerke completed her senior project on COA’s composting system, and following her graduation she spent a year abroad with a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, exploring human conceptions of waste and the value of organic materials in Germany, India, China, and Japan. Upon returning to the states, she began work on her master’s thesis at COA, allowing her to continue engaging with and improving the college’s relationship with trash. As the Discarded Resources Manager, she coordinates the recycling, compost, and waste reduction programs on campus.

“Most of the world is looking towards western countries for solutions to the different waste crises around the world, but our current systems of recycling and waste management are not adequate to manage the vast volume and variety of discarded resources contributing to climate change and environmental social injustice,” she says. “Our ways of landfilling, burning, and down-cycling materials are not and will not be a resilient approach to economic, social, and environmental sustainability.”

Lisa Bjerke ’13, MPhil ’17, COA's Discarded Resources Manager.Lisa Bjerke ’13, MPhil ’17, COA's Discarded Resources Manager.

In addition to upgrading the school’s recycling system, Bjerke is implementing preemptive measures to recover materials before they are lost in the waste stream. Her work includes the creation of a removal service which finds new homes and uses for unwanted items from the community. That work has led to a student move-out program at the end of every academic year. Last year, over 1,000 unwanted items were collected and donated to a local food program, the college’s summer school, and a variety of charities. Some materials were also stored and redistributed to incoming students in the fall.

Through a yearly “embrace your waste” awareness project, Bjerke invites the community to engage with its discarded materials. A team of volunteers helps collect everything that the school discards over a week in the fall term from dumpsters and recycling bins around campus. These materials are then sorted and exhibited in a large tent. The event serves as both an audit and a manifestation of positive engagement with our lost resources.

Bjerke is replacing the 3R’s mental model of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” with a twelve R’s model: reuse, reduce, repair, replenish, research, reach out, redesign, rot, rethink, recycle, reimagine, and remake. By giving the community tools to embrace their current discarded resources, she is changing the management, infrastructure, and culture from disposability to accountability.