Changes in the Recycling Industry Raise the Bar for Waste Sorting on Campus

[Pile of plastics in China – Photo Credit: Fred Dufour/Agence France-Presse]

In 2010, WashU made the transition to single-stream recycling on all campuses, making it easy and convenient for the university community to recycle. At the time, this change helped the university to nearly double consumer waste diversion.

Today, about 42% of the waste generated by our institution is diverted from landfills, of which 82% comes from mixed post-consumer recyclables (FY2017, all campuses). This milestone put us closer to our goal of achieving a 55% diversion rate on the Danforth campus, and 45% rate on the Medical campus, by 2020.

While waste diversion successes depend on the availability of a robust recycling infrastructure, it also relies heavily upon the users’ ability to properly sort their waste. Recent changes in the recycling industry have challenged our recycling performances, making it more important than ever to keep trash out of our recycling bins. Merely putting something in the recycle bin doesn’t make it recyclable!

Recent Changes in the Life Cycle of Recyclables

The recycling bin is only the starting point of a long journey for materials. WashU recyclables are picked up by Waste Connections, who then hauls it to one of several Material Recovery Facilities in the St. Louis region. There, a combination of people and automated machines sort through the mixed recyclables and separate them into different categories. The different types of materials are then baled (compressed and packaged) and sent to commodity brokers and manufacturers all over the world to be reprocessed into new products.

For the past few decades, China has been the main destination for recycling loads coming from North America and Europe – some of the biggest waste producers on the planet. According to recent industry data, China processed over half of the world’s exports of waste paper, metals and used plastic in 2016. The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries has also reported that scrap paper and scrap plastics are the sixth-largest American export to China.

After the post-consumer recycled materials are sent to various Chinese manufacturers (each material – glass, paper, plastic, etc. – is treated differently), they are processed into new products and sold on international markets, often ending up back in the country where the waste originated.

China has been a major actor in the recycling industry, leading the charge of turning raw recycling materials into valuable products. However, recycling loads are often found to be contaminated with non-recyclable waste and the quality of the exported commodity has become more and more questionable. “Large amounts of dirty wastes or even hazardous wastes are mixed in the solid waste that can be used as raw materials,” Beijing wrote to the World Trade Organization “This polluted China’s environment seriously.”

As part of a broad antipollution campaign, China has banned the imports of various types of plastic and paper, tightening the standards for materials it accepts. This decision, which took effect January 1st of this year, has had a massive impact on recycling industries across the world who have often been relying exclusively on China to process their recyclables.

Recycling is a Commodity, Keep it Clean!

China’s new rules teach us a lesson. They remind us of the value of recyclables as a raw material that feeds the broader recycling market. It too reminds us of the fragility of this value, as it only takes a few contaminants to turn a load of recyclables into a load of trash that can sit in our landfills or even threaten China’s public health.

Become a Genius and Teach your Peers

While WashU is making significant waste reduction efforts, contamination from users throwing trash in the recycling remains an issue. To prevent this, the Office of Sustainability is working not only on educational signage and communication campaigns, but has also been building a community of Recycling Geniuses to educate the WashU community and serve as examples. (Discover the top 6 things you are recycling incorrectly…)

The Recycling Genius training consists of a brief, yet in-depth, training on proper waste sorting, from recycling to compost to landfill. Once you are trained as a Recycling Genius, you can provide presentations to groups (like your office) or even provide educational sorting activities during meal times. During volunteer shifts, you can also help with educational outreach to bring awareness to new recycling guidelines and common contaminants.

The beginning of the school year is a critical time to communicate to incoming students about sustainable living and waste sorting. In August and September, Recycling Geniuses will have multiple opportunities to volunteer to help educate the WashU community about how to correctly sort waste while ensuring that iconic events such as Convocation are truly zero landfill. Volunteer shifts are fun and collaborative, and provide an opportunity to connect with students and staff in a unique way. Believe us, sorting waste creates lasting friendships!

We will be holding two Recycling Genius trainings on the Danforth campus, on July 31st and August 7, and two more on the Medical campus on July 18th and 30th. Learn more here. You can also sign up to receive more information about volunteer opportunities here.

Further Reading