Recycling on campuses affected by China’s plastics ban

China’s recent decision to drastically limit the amount and types of recyclable plastics it accepts from other countries has forced colleges to find new ways to handle trash removal.

China’s recent decision to drastically limit the amount and types of recyclable plastics it accepts from other countries has forced colleges to find new ways to handle trash removal. The new policy is projected to create 111 million metric tons of  “unacceptable” plastic waste by 2030, a University of Georgia study found.

Right now, very few alternate destinations exist for that refuse. Municipalities are struggling to find new outlets to accept waste, and many have cancelled recycling programs rather than pay extra.

Given most institutions’ commitment to sustainability, ceasing recycling programs altogether seems unlikely. But some colleges have already seen price increases, says E. Lander Medlin, executive vice president of APPA, the higher ed facilities organization. “This is going to be a crummy nightmare for sustainability,” says Medlin.

Quickly finding any outlets for the amount of recyclables generated will be a challenge.

Long-term recycling solutions

Colleges were already managing increased amounts of recyclable waste over recent years, so removing a major disposal option only exacerbates the situation. “Now that the spigot of China is turned off, campus leaders need to educate themselves about other possibilities,” Medlin says. She advises seeking partners who create products from recyclable materials.

Some campuses have banned single-use plastics. Others have adopted multistream recycling to keep waste “clean.” For example, the University of Minnesota divides recyclables into bins for plastic, glass, paper, etc., and then staffers further sort them by hand. This protects the integrity and value of materials, which makes the recyclables desirable to collection services.

Reducing the amount of plastic coming on to campus also helps. Many campuses have increased the number of water stations for bottle refills. A next step could be removing all plastic water bottles in dining halls and campus retail stores,
says Medlin.
Raising prices on certain products as a deterrent is another option.

Ultimately, campus leaders should be rethinking their purchasing, supply and delivery chains. “People need to recognize that this is a real issue right now, and if they’re not aware of it, they need to be because it’s happening,” says Medlin.

Rocky Mountain recycling

The University of Colorado Boulder’s recycling program was launched in 1976. Now, the institution has a second on-campus facility, which is staffed by students who process materials.

CU Boulder employs “dual stream” collection. All containers—plastics, glass, cans, cartons—get collected together, while all white paper is collected separately. Each building’s loading dock features a trash dumpster, a cardboard dumpster, a compost dumpster and toters for paper and containers.

By separating materials—especially white paper—the institution is able to preserve the value of recyclable commodities and find good markets for resale, says Ed von Bleichert, program manager, sustainability and resiliency.  

“If you can save high-quality, archival and acid-free white ledger paper that still has virgin content in it—that’s a valuable commodity that can be reused six to eight times before fibers shrink,” says von Bleichert.

The CU Boulder student body recently passed a plastics ban, but recycling plastics is always a challenge because of low value and recovery rates, says von Bleichert.

One change the institution has made is to exchange much of its food service plastics (flatware, plates and cups) for compostable, cellulose-based plastics. “That allows us to eliminate a lot of what we couldn’t recycle, but now we can collect as compostable with organic materials, which has its own challenges,” says von Bleichert. Compostable plastics cannot be put in a landfill, for example.

CU Boulder has also focused on sustainable procurement with contract and vendor reform. For example, vendors may not bring in materials that the institution cannot recycle. The institution also has an active outreach and education program that encourages reuse. No plastic foam coffee cups are allowed on campus, and water bottle refilling stations are being installed across campus.

“Maybe this is just a wake-up call for everyone,” says von Bleichert. “I hope there will be a positive side to this in the long term in that we’ll just develop more highly recyclable plastics.”

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