Colorado State University Live Green Students Find Many Recyclable Items in Great Sand Dunes National Park Trash

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You’d be surprised what’s in the trash at Great Sand Dunes National Park.

For the first time in the history of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, the park hosted a dumpster dive for students in Colorado State University’s Live Green community.

Park officials were quite surprised at what the students turned up with.

“A surprise inspection of the trash at Great Sand Dunes National Park brought great insight into the waste management program at our national park,” said Art Hutchinson, superintendent of Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. “There is nothing like seeing first-hand what is produced daily in park operations to understand what needs to be done to change behavior and therefore reducing waste and costs to the park budget.”

A group of 19 CSU students traveled to the Great Sand Dunes National Park during spring break last week as part of a class on sustainability. Modeled after Recyclemania – a national recycling contest held at universities and colleges – the students worked with park staff to collect trash from the park’s visitor center, parking lot, campground and park residences and then sorted the trash to determine what items were recyclable.

The students found that of the recyclable items retrieved, plastic bottles were most popular in the sand dunes parking lot trash cans. Paper recycling was in good shape across all four sample sites. However, the amount of cardboard was higher than expected. The park has been trying to convince visitors that cardboard does not slide well on the dunes and it should not be brought into the park. Students provided a number of suggestions on how to get the word out to future visitors on cardboard and other trash minimization efforts.

“The snapshot findings of this experimental project provide the Great Sand Dunes National Park a foundation to develop strategies about how to get park visitors and residents to recycle,” said Gillian Bowser, assistant dean in the Warner College of Natural Resources. “Our students are helping create sustainability solutions for a national park and that is the basis of the Live Green community.”

The park is located in south central Colorado – a rural area where recycling is not as easy. Local governments have found it difficult to maintain recycling centers. The closest full recycling facility for the park’s use is in Pueblo, more than 100 miles away. Each year the park sends more than 60 large, 20-foot dumpster loads to the local landfill. This costs the park valuable operational funds, so any effort to reduce the volume of trash through recycling efforts helps the park’s bottom line and is environmentally conscious.

“The park will continue to work with CSU on ways to encourage visitors, staff and employees to reduce the waste at the park and save lots of money each year,” said Hutchinson. “We hope some students will come back during our busy summer season and give us a second look at the park’s trash stream.”

The Live Green community is an experience-based learning community sponsored by the university’s Warner College of Natural Resources and the College of Agricultural Sciences. The students who are members of the community learn about sustainability through service experience in national parks preservation, organic and traditional foods productions, and renewable energy.