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Dordt College News

Trash talk

January 25, 2013

Dumpster diving as homework? It was for students in Dr. Sherri Lantinga’s section of Core 399: Calling, Task, and Culture.

Lantinga is a psychologist and is becoming something of a garbologist—someone interested in trash for what it tells about a culture.

“Looking at garbage helps us understand what we value,” says Lantinga.

Thinking about trash is something Lantinga has been doing for a long time.  In fact, she admits that she and her family are dumpster divers.

“There are so many usable things thrown into dumpsters,” she says. Her family has found perfectly usable bedding, clothes, food, appliances, and much more—many in Dordt dumpsters at the end of the school year. In an attempt to make a small dent in what goes into the landfill, the Lantinga family washes and cleans good, usable items and brings them to secondhand stores. The kids even make a little money in the process.

But despite her own interest in the issue, Lantinga wasn’t sure, at the beginning of the semester, that students would think it was such a cool idea to study trash. Core 399 students are divided into five groups to study a variety of issues relevant to living as Christians in today’s world. Each of five faculty mentors gets a few minutes to describe and promote their section, after which students order their choices for the group they’d like to join. She worked hard to sell her idea.

“Students were stunned to learn that a prof went dumpster diving,” she says. But nearly half of the class of 140 students chose her section as their first choice. Even though fewer than 30 eventually got in, the whole class learned something about trash from the group’s end-of-semester presentation.

Students in Lantinga’s class participated in several group activities to give them more information about garbage.

Each student kept a 24-hour trash diary to help them become more conscious of what they threw away. They were asked to put items in categories: food packaging, paper, plastic, metal, etc., and then do some research on how long things take to break down.

The class went on a campus dumpster dive to investigate the garbage of two residence halls. They took out and sorted what they found, recycling, composting, and reusing what they could before returning the rest to the dumpster.

They visited the local landfill and recycling center to get a better idea of what happens to the trash they put out at the curb. They learned what comes in and what gets recycled, and they saw the large hill rising over the Iowa farmland.

They listened to a young alumna describe lifestyle choices she and her husband are making to produce less waste and interviewed local couples interested in these issues.

They read a variety of articles about the impact of garbage and learned, among other things, that plastic doesn’t break down, that cooking from scratch creates far less food packaging waste, that the local landfill will be full in 30 years, and that the Pacific Ocean has a giant floating “island” of plastic trash.

For the rest of the semester, Lantinga’s students were divided into working groups, each group looking at one aspect of the issue. 

“Students soon come to realize how complicated things are,” says Lantinga, adding that they also see that what they are learning is not just theoretical but that it has implications for daily living.

“They begin to ask questions like, ‘how many pairs of shoes do I own¬—and how many do I need’ and, in the process, begin to think that this, as everything, is a discipleship issue.”

Lantinga’s goal for the course is to get her students thinking and making conscious choices: being more aware of why they buy things; realizing that when they throw things away, they don’t disappear but end up in oceans, endanger people in developing countries, or affect the health of animals and people; and asking whether they need as much as they’ve come to want.

Some students had not thought much about these issues before; a few were already committed to secondhand clothes and recycling. Lantinga found that students’ attitudes and behaviors seemed to have been formed early and in the home, and, in general, Canadian students were more concerned about these issues than U.S. students. Regardless of where her students were when they began the course, Lantinga says the class gave them the opportunity to talk to and challenge each other in a way that benefitted everyone.

Lantinga doesn’t give students a prescription for how much and what they should buy or throw away, but she does push them to see that creating and dealing with trash is a discipleship issue, not simply an issue for environmentalists. What she hopes they leave with is simple: Because I am a follower of Christ, my actions matter—in this as in everything else.


SALLY JONGSMA

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