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.
By: | Issue: April/May, 2019
April 8, 2019
Recycling plastic china

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.