LOS BANOS — Matt Hirota has been tweaking UC Merced's garbage system for more than a year and found that it's all about simplicity and education.
"Human behavior is very bizarre," he said.
Hirota, the university's waste reduction and recycling coordinator, recorded video of about 75 staff members tossing their garbage after monthly meetings to better understand why people don't sort recyclable, compostable and landfill-bound waste properly.
He's also designed a receptacle with a co-worker based on some of what he learned.
Similar to homes across Merced County, the school's 5,800 students drop waste into blue, green and gray containers for recyclable, compostable and landfill waste, respectively. With the containers alone, he found 40 percent got the recyclables right, 89 percent properly sorted compostables and 43 percent could pick out the trash headed for a landfill.
For the following month's meeting, Hirota added signs to garbage cans with pictures of the kind of trash most common to the meetings a recyclable plastic cup, compostable bagels and stirring sticks, and individual sugar and creamer packets that would go to a dump, to name a few.
With the signs, the success rate went up to 89 percent, 93 percent and 84 percent for the blue, green and gray receptacles, respectively.
"So, a huge jump with the signs," Hirota said.
In the video, many of the staff members look at the signs, hesitate and make the wrong decision.
The highest success rate came, perhaps without surprise, when Hirota stood at the garbage cans and individually instructed the staff members where each piece went.
However, even then, none of the cans was used 100 percent correctly.
Hirota's effort is part of UC Merced's "triple net zero" commitment by 2020. The idea is to consume zero net energy through efficiency and renewable energy production, produce zero landfill waste and prevent as many carbon emissions as it produces.
"If we're going to get to zero percent, we have to purchase stuff that is recyclable or compostable," Hirota said.
The school already has added compostable plates, which are made from sugar cane fiber, and Hirota wants the food vendors to move to biodegradable wooden cutlery, reusable dispensers for coffee creamer and compostable soda cups.
"We have to be innovative; we have to try new things," Hirota said. "We kind of have to be extreme."
One way he innovated, along with Associate University Librarian Eric Scott, was to design an all-in-one receptacle that's clearly marked and fits with the Kolligian Library's aesthetics.
The men took their design to Merced-based Great Spaces USA, a laminate fixture manufacturing company.
Scott said the pending patents are based on design and function. UC Merced would own any patent that's granted, but the two men would get a percentage of money made.
"That's actually one of the ways the UC (system) makes a huge amount of money," Scott said.
Patents are big business for the University of California system. The school made $119.2 million last year, according to the UC Technology Transfer Annual Report 2012.
The men said they've received some interest from groups, and expect it from others willing to spend a little more for an aesthetically pleasing and clearly marked receptacle.
Hirota continues to tweak the way trash is handled on campus while using his better understanding of human behavior.
"In order to get people to do something," Hirota said, "I find that if you make it as basic as possible, there's more chance to get the outcome you want."
Los Banos Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.