Not all internships are created equal. Some businesses turn overeager college students into coffee gofers, while others practically chain a student to a desk with busy work. However, participants in the Waste Management recycling corps will leave their 10-week internship with the knowledge that they were a positive force for change.

A scant 10 percent of plastic bottles are diverted from landfills, while the remaining 90 percent can take anywhere from 100 to 1,000 years to biodegrade—depending on the plastic’s thickness—in a landfill. Some plastics such as Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET or PETE) will never decompose. This is just one of many lessons the interns are hoping to take to Waste Management’s client base in the coming weeks.

Waste Management trucks roll out of the company's Woodinville depot with recycle corps interns in tow. (Photo courtesy of Waste Management)

Waste Management trucks roll out of the company’s Woodinville depot with recycle corps interns in tow. Photo courtesy Waste Management

The team of 12 recycle corps interns will work with businesses, multi-family properties, and consumers in 26 cities throughout the Puget Sound to divert recyclables from landfills through education and awareness. In the program’s four-year history, interns have already worked to establish a 3,532-ton increase in the region’s recycling.

“Really the goal is to give people the information and tools they need to best utilize their recycling service and help them reduce waste and their impact in the environment,” said Michelle Metzler, education and outreach specialist for the program.

Recycling goals are different for each city around the Puget Sound, therefore interns must provide education that is optimized in alignment with the each city’s goals.

“For example, the City of Redmond is really focused on multi-family recycling,” Metzler said. “So we’ll be in Redmond (this) week and we will be going door-to-door visiting multi-family properties; having conversations with property managers about the optimum recycling to put out, ensuring that they have adequate recycling service, and answering any questions they have about what goes in which bin.”

To assist with this community outreach, Metzler said this year’s participant pool has a robust array of multi-cultural and multi-lingual backgrounds.

“We found it is a need in the community we serve to have interns that reflect the communities we serve,” she said. “Over half of our interns speak a second language, so we are really excited about that because we will be able to communicate with different community members that speak Spanish, Mandarin, Hindi, and American Sign Language.”

In addition to the environmental impact of the program, many past interns come away from the experience with a resume boost and often a new professional passion. This was the case for Sarah Vaira who participated in Waste Management’s recycle corps in 2014 and is now an education and outreach coordinator for Waste Management.

“I was studying environmental studies and communities,” she said. “The internship really opened me up to the whole complex industry of waste and recycling and really sparked an interest and passion in sustainability—which I already had an interest in—and really validated it because it was something I cared about and cared enough start a career in.”

Ben Jensen shadows his Waste Management mentor as he begins his morning route. (Photo courtesy of Waste Management)

Intern Ben Jensen shadows his Waste Management mentor as he begins his morning route. Photo courtesy Waste Management.

Vaira isn’t the only one, nearly 50 percent of the recycle corps alumni are now working in the industry for private companies, in public sector, or for consulting firms.

Current intern and University of Washington senior, Ben Jensen, is passionate about waste diversion and is optimistic that the internship will help him hone his communication skills for future endeavors.

“I’ve had experience interning in the past with a little less engagement with the public, so I’m hoping this internship will give me insight into that experience and hopefully provide me with the tools I can use in the future with other community engagement projects,” he said.