Rutgers Professor On What Our Trash Reveals About Us

Kevin Lyons seeks to minimize the detritus of modern life by combing through landfills all over the world.

kevin lyons
Foraging through America’s trash piles, Kevin Lyons has uncovered an abundance of plastic bags, lipstick tubes and a staggering amount of plastic packaging. Photo by James J. Connolly

Kevin Lyons offers a challenge: Deposit him in a landfill anywhere in the world, let him pick through the trash for half an hour, and he’ll tell you the exact location.

It’s no idle boast. Lyons, an associate professor of professional practice at the Rutgers Business School, is—and we don’t mean this metaphorically—obsessed with garbage. About once a month, you can find him foraging through dumps in South Jersey and elsewhere in the tristate area. He’s also explored landfills around the globe, from Trinidad to Colombia to the United Kingdom. Knowing this, you can understand why his Rutgers students fondly refer to him as Dr. Trash.

Lyons takes trash very seriously. What else would you expect from a dedicated researcher whose interests include supply-chain management, environmental economics, and alternative product and packaging composite development? Lyons invented the discipline known as supply-chain archaeology, which involves rifling through our collective garbage to determine what our disposable economy most frequently disposes of. Given that much of our throwaways end up either decomposing into methane—the most potent of greenhouse gases—or migrating into our waterways and polluting our oceans, Lyons is particularly interested in coming up with ways to minimize the detritus of modern life.

Lyons ponders the discards he finds in our trash heaps and asks: “Could we have made this product differently? Why did it, or its byproducts or packaging, end up here? Could we have made it in a way that would allow it to be incorporated back into nature when we’re finished with it?” 

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Now 57, Lyons became interested in environmental issues as an adolescent—although he acknowledges that trash picker wasn’t among the professional options he considered as a kid.  He entertained thoughts of becoming a scientist or a physician, he says, but his career path was shaped more by his family’s finances than his personal aspirations. “I had five siblings, and I knew there was no way my parents were going to pay for me to go to college,” he remembers. “I didn’t even ask—I wasn’t going to push for that, knowing it would bring some hardship to my family.”

Instead, he joined the Air Force and, when he was presented with a list of potential occupations, chose procurement—the purchase of goods and services. “It looked interesting,” he says. The first task assigned to him was to purchase chemicals that would be used to eradicate the local gopher population where he was stationed in Wyoming. 

The idea of spreading highly toxic chemicals—not to mention killing off hundreds of gophers—didn’t sit well with Lyons, so he questioned the judgment of his chief officer. That didn’t sit well with his chief officer. Nevertheless, Lyons persisted and came up with a way to move the gophers rather than killing them, using safer products and techniques—and saving the Air Force money in the process. 

The decision garnered him several awards from his unit, the respect of his superiors, and the sense that, if he could get the military to change its behavior, then he might be pretty good at this procurement thing.

* * *

In 1986, fresh out of the service, Lyons got his first civilian job in procurement, at St. Peter’s Medical Center in New Brunswick. Two years later, Rutgers hired him as a buyer in its Procurement and Contracting division. Over the course of two decades, he rose to the top of the university’s procurement heap, becoming the division’s head in 2005. Along the way, he earned a PhD in supply-chain management, environmental management and policy. 

Reducing waste remained a priority for him. On his instruction, the university’s furniture suppliers stopped shipping furniture in massive cardboard boxes. Instead, they wrapped the deliveries in the kind of heavy-duty quilted blankets used by moving companies. These could be returned and reused after the desks, chairs, file cabinets and bookcases were unpacked. He also wrote a contract with the university’s waste hauler that offered financial rewards for removing refuse from the waste chain and diverting it to recycling. Today, Rutgers is one of only a handful of universities that recycle at least 60 percent of their waste.

Reducing waste is equally important in Lyons’s research, which examines the movement of products along the supply chain, from production to sale to use to disposal. His archaeological digs in the country’s landfills offer insight not just into what we toss away, but why we toss it. 

Consider clothing, which, surprisingly, is one of the things Lyons finds most often on digs. We may donate a portion of our clothing or, in the case of children’s wear, pass items down to younger siblings. But when they’re in no condition to be passed along or given away—frayed, faded, pilled, stretched out or coming apart at the seams—wearables more likely than not end up in the trash. That’s partly the fault of fast fashion, Lyons says, citing a business model that involves producing clothes cheaply, using inexpensive materials and production methods, with the understanding that the clothing will soon go out of style anyway.

Americans also waste staggering amounts of food—45 percent of it, to be precise. “We buy stuff, we use a little of it, and then we throw it away,” says Lyons. He notes that you can tell a lot about a culture based on something as simple as asparagus waste. Where food is plentiful, landfills are littered with long asparagus ends, since consumers are likely to throw away everything but the tender tips. Where food is in short supply, you’ll find only the very bottoms of the asparagus, because most of the stalk is considered edible.

* * *

Mingling with cast-off clothing and decomposing foodstuffs is a host of plastics, 79 percent of which end up either in landfills or in the natural environment. Lyons finds “an abundance” of plastic bags in America’s trash heaps, along with lipstick tubes and other cosmetic containers, as well as the plastic packaging that wraps a staggering array of products, from peanut butter to paper clips. He’s working with Rutgers’s department of packaging engineering to develop alternative materials, many of them plant based, that will have little or no impact on the environment. With his eye continually on the supply chain, though, he notes that not all plant-based alternatives are environmentally friendly. Palm-derived materials, for instance, are highly biodegradable, but have a devastating effect on the environment when large swaths of rainforest are cleared to make way for palm plantations.

One thing Lyons would like to see on all packaging, green or otherwise, is information on the product’s carbon footprint. He and his students are working to develop a carbon-impact symbol and/or label that would let consumers know how much carbon was emitted to produce and package a particular product. “Then you, as the consumer, could see that, if there were a billion of these products made”—toothbrushes or cell phones, for example—“what an impact they’d have on the environment.”

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To reduce the fashion industry’s impact on the environment, he and his colleagues will host a Sustainable Fashion Week in September. He describes the planned event as “a full-fledged major fashion show involving all elements of sustainability, from materials to function.” It will be timed to correspond with the fashion industry’s annual showcase in New York City.

To reduce his environmental impact in the classroom, Lyons eschews physical objects in his lectures as much as possible, relying instead on a hologram projector to illustrate his lessons. His hope is that he and his colleagues can educate consumers to discard less of what they use and help manufacturers produce fewer disposable products. Until then, he’ll continue combing landfills to wrest truth from our trash.

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