Environmental scientist picks through Disneyland trash with one goal: Zero waste by 2030 – The Denver Post

Disneyland Environmental Integration Manager Lotus Thai picks through trash at the Anaheim theme park all in the name of science and in search of an elusive goal: Reaching zero waste to area landfills by 2030.

Thai’s job in a nutshell is to get Disneyland visitors and employees to think about what they throw away and how they can recycle it.

“Trash isn’t a fun thing to talk about,” Thai said during an interview at Disneyland. “So how do you get people excited about trash?”

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Thai invited me to dig through Disneyland’s trash to see how visitors dispose of their leftover hamburgers, french fries, corn dogs, churros and Dole Whips in “Food Only” trash cans that have been rolled out in a few locations throughout the park.

Food waste studies like the one I conducted help Thai and the Disneyland Environmental Integration team figure out how to reduce food waste at three steps of the process: Upstream with vendors, midstream with employees and downstream with visitors.

Thai is passionate about reducing waste and promoting recycling at Disneyland. She even made hand-painted Disneyland trash can costumes out of upcycled cardboard boxes to add a little levity to her pitches about Project Zero — an employee competition that pits departments against each other in a waste reduction battle royale. Project Zero is part of Disney’s larger corporate-wide initiative to reduce waste and emissions, conserve water and design sustainable products and buildings.

Disneyland has long had two side-by-side trash bins in the parks. The “Trash” cans say “No Food or Recyclables” on the bin with pictographs indicating that plastic utensils, potato chip bags and kids’ juice boxes belong in the bin. The “Mixed Recycling” cans say “Cans, Glass, Plastic, Paper” under a smaller slot for refuse.

In a few locations, Disneyland has been testing out “Food Only” cans labeled “Fruit, Meats, Desserts” with images of a half-eaten hamburger, apple and turkey leg on the side of the bin.

I put on a black apron and baby blue latex gloves for my food waste study that was set up next to a trash dumpster in a backstage area just behind Tomorrowland.

On a folding table in front of me was a teal green bag of food waste from a “Food Only” can near the Galactic Grill and five small trash bins labeled Food, Paper Cups, Paper Boats, Landfill and Mixed Recycling.

My job was simple: Sift through the trash and sort the leftover lunch from Galactic Grill diners into the five bins. Thai stood nearby to help guide me in my task. How hard could sorting trash be? Much harder than I expected as I was about to find out.

“This is science,” Thai said. “We are scientists.”

I was an English major in college — in part so I could avoid the science wing of campus. A mix of anticipation and nerves blended with the smell of salt and grease as I started my Disneyland waste study experiment. Surprisingly the one emotion I didn’t have was disgust as I stared into a sea of uneaten french fries and half-eaten hamburgers.

Step one was to place the teal green bag of food waste on a digital scale to get a starting weight. Thai took it easy on me with a quarter-full bag that weighed only 4.8 pounds.

Thai often tackles larger waste studies that require her to sort much fuller bags of Disneyland trash into 10 or 15 separate categories.

“It really depends on what I’m trying to learn,” Thai said.

The scientific hypothesis I was studying on this day: How many paper food boats and paper drink cups were being thrown in the “Food Only” bins near the Galactic Grill?

“It’s supposed to be food only in that can,” Thai said. “We need to be able to reduce the amount of trash going in the food can. So, how do we know if we’re doing things correctly or not?”

Thai’s first tip was to leave all the actual food waste in the Tomorrowland trash bag. No need to toss all those hamburger buns, beef patties, french fries, corn dogs, churros and ketchup into the little food waste can on the folding table – just pull out everything that was not food waste and sort it into the labeled cans arrayed before me.

Sorting the paper food boats and the paper drink cups was pretty self explanatory — with each going into their respective bins for our experiment.

Where those drink cups and food boats end up in the tortuously tangled world of recycling is a little more complicated. Wax coated paper cups and food boats can’t be recycled. Uncoated food boats can be recycled — as long as they have little to no food waste. But they belong in the landfill bin if they are covered in ketchup or coated in leftover mac n’ cheese.

Overall, I was still a little fuzzy on what was supposed to go in the mixed recycling bin versus the landfill bin — which is a larger issue for Disneyland, but not the scientific hypothesis I was testing. The question at hand was how much non-food was being tossed in the “Food Only” bins.

As I started sifting through the trash, I turned to Thai whenever I had questions or doubts about which bin the non-food items belonged in.

Mixed recycling confused me. Plastic Coke bottles and plastic specialty drink cups went in mixed recycling. But plastic utensils and paper straws did not. Why? Because they were too small to be recycled, according to Thai.

The parchment paper used to wrap food or line food boats? That sounded like mixed recycling to me. Nope, it belonged in the landfill bin. The foil potato chip bag? Certainly that goes in recycling. Wrong again. My head was already spinning.

“As you’re doing this, you’re also observing,” Thai said. “When I’m going through the trash I obviously care about the categories, but I also look at the human behavior side.”

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The hamburger foil wrapper balled up with leftover burger and bun inside? That’s clearly food waste, but getting visitors to unwrap the ball and separate the food and foil into the correct cans has been one of the biggest challenges facing Disneyland’s Environmental Integration team.

“That’s where we say, ‘Hey, the foil might be causing a lot of trash to go to food,’” Thai said. “Because they’re not pouring out the food. They’re just bundling it all up and then throwing it all into whatever bin.”

I unwrapped the burger ball and was immediately faced with the next conundrum: Where does the foil wrapper go? I guessed mixed recycling because it was paper on one side and foil on the other. Paper and foil together sounded like “mixed” recycling to me — but I was wrong. The foil wrapper belonged in the landfill bin because the recycling facility can’t separate the two materials.

The “mixed” in mixed recycling means you can throw plastic bottles and aluminum cans into the same trash can – but you shouldn’t throw in items that mix together two recyclable materials.

Napkins totally confused me. They seemed simple enough. The brown color of the napkins made me think they were made from recycled paper. They must go in with the mixed recycling, right? Nope. Napkins are an “end of life” product and go in landfill, Thai said.

“Napkins are one of those things where it’s done,” Thai said. “We can not recycle it anymore.”

The paper straw seemed like a no brainer: Mixed recycling. Wah-wah. Incorrect answer. Paper straws are too small to be recycled. They’re landfill.

The paper wrapper from a paper straw? I chose landfill based on the napkin and straw scenarios. Wrong again. Paper goes in mixed recycling — as long as it’s not soiled with food. Then it goes to the landfill.

What about the little ketchup packets? They contained food on the inside and were wrapped in a plastic packet — two recyclable materials mixed together. That meant it belonged in landfill. Thai gave me two thumbs up. Finally, I got one right.

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Sorting through the trash was fun once I got the hang of it — kind of like figuring out a puzzle.

I squeezed the leftover ketchup out of one of those little paper portion cups into the food waste bag in front of me and tossed the soiled paper cup into the landfill bin. Now I was getting the hang of things.

Playing with other people’s chewed food was a little disgusting, but my pride as a scientist outweighed my nausea. I was doing scientific research — not just picking through trash. I was having fun.

I took a napkin from the food waste trash bag and wiped the excess ketchup off my latex gloves and tossed the soiled napkin into the landfill bin. I had this down now.

The point of all this dirty work? To come up with solutions that help Disneyland reduce waste.

One thing Disneyland’s trash sifting scientists have learned from all these waste studies is that they prefer bulk condiment stations with paper portion cups over condiment packets because that gets the park closer to zero waste. Ultimately, the goal is to make recycling less confusing and find products that are better for the environment.

“There’s obviously the environmental science and environmental sustainability aspect of this and of course statistics,” Thai said. “But there’s also the human behavior psychology component to our work as well.”

Soiled cash register receipt? I tossed it in the landfill bin. I was getting in the rhythm now.

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One of the things I realized during my Disneyland dumpster diving scientific research was just how much can’t be recycled. Thai and Disneyland’s Environmental Integration team hope to change that.

Disneyland sends the food scraps collected outside the Galactic Grill and other eateries to a recycling plant that heats, filters, cleans and ultimately reduces the leftovers to an oatmeal-like powder that smells like graham crackers without the cinnamon. The powder is sold to farmers who shake it on animal feed like nutritional yeast – and ultimately helps Disneyland reduce the amount of waste that gets sent to landfill and achieve its goal of achieving a formal zero waste certification.

“When we define zero waste, it’s actually 90% diversion,” Thai said. “What that means is 10% of the items can go to landfill and 90% of the items you find a way to either reuse the items or not have the waste created at all.”

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Disneyland’s Environmental Integration team launched the Project Zero initiative in 2021 with a competition that pits four departments against each other to see which team can reduce the most waste. The novel project earned Disneyland a 2022 SEAL Business Sustainability Award.

Four teams have been competing for the Project Zero crown: Disneyland’s candy production team, the resort’s central bakery, the Team Disney Anaheim headquarters and the Luigi administration building behind Cars Land. Their success has ranged from 60% waste reduction to more than 90%. The hard part has been staying at or above 90% consistently over an extended period of time.

When my waste study was done, we weighed the food waste left in the bag and compared it to the weight in the paper cup, paper boat, mixed recycling and landfill bins. The actual food waste weighed 4.2 pounds. Doing the math, that meant 87.5% of the items Disneyland visitors had thrown in the Galactic Grill “Food Only” can was actually food waste. That’s pretty close to Disneyland’s goal of 90% waste reduction — or Zero Waste in recycling parlance.

To document our study, we created a pie chart of the waste that went into the five bins. Most importantly, Thai had Clorox wipes handy to clean up after my waste study was complete.

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