New Recycling Guidelines Announced

In response to a recent trend of rejected recycling loads due to food contamination, Washington University is rolling out updated guidelines for sorting waste. We are calling on the WashU community to help address this issue and stop contamination. We need YOUR help to make sure that every recycling load gets recycled. When in doubt, sort it out!

For updated guidelines, click here.


The Problem

Due to heavy contamination, loads of compostable and recyclable materials are being rejected by our haulers on a regular basis, which results in expensive fees and undermines our waste diversion efforts. As much as half of our sorted recycling and compost is being routed to the landfill due to high contamination. Recycling is a fundamental building block of the Washington University sustainability strategy; a 50% rejection rate is unacceptable.

What changed?

  • Due to drop in market values of recycled materials, Resource Management (the sorting facility we send our single stream recycling to) is being more selective in what they accept.
  • Previously, there was flexibility paper to-go containers. All education and signage has been produced and promoted with the assumption that these were accepted and recycled. Before use, paper to-go containers are recyclable; however, to-go containers often contain leftover food or food residue, the primary contaminant causing rejected loads. Food-soiled paper products are not recyclable.
  • Though not widely promoted, paper cups are not recyclable because they have a petroleum-based liner that prevents them from breaking down into a liquid pulp, which is how paper is recycled.
  • Compost collection was introduced as a pilot in 2013. Contamination is a challenge because the tolerance for contamination is so low – about 2%. Despite a trend of improvement documented in October 2015, contamination (and rejected loads) remains a challenge for post-consumer compost collection.

Our message has always been no food, no liquids, no ice. The current situation with recycling being rejected provides a good opportunity to revisit recycling education.


food contamination in recycling 2

Image of contaminated recycling load: liquid and food waste is present throughout the sorted materials.

What are we doing about it?

The Office of Sustainability (OOS) has engaged a wide variety of stakeholders to address the issue and has begun to implement many long-term strategies to make it easier for all the people involved along the chain of custody to correctly sort and recycle waste. (See the Strategic Plan for a list of specific action items.)

However, we need a quick, strong marketing campaign to convey the issue and charge students, staff, and faculty with re-learning the correct way to recycle. We have partnered with Public Affairs, Dining Services, Custodial Services and others to design and spread the message.

Immediate Actions

For the 2016/17 academic year, the Office of Sustainability will facilitate the following:

  • Create and install new labels for major problem locations, focusing on containers and sorting areas. All dining areas and residential hall trash rooms will be participating in the campaign.
  • Student Green Ambassadors will work with RAs and incoming students to teach them the correct way of sorting waste.
  • Green Event Stations will be present at 6 events during the first 40 days of the semester to reinforce the new recycling message.
  • Create a webpage with “deep dive” information about what certain items are or are not recyclable.
  • Roll out messaging within the newsletter, social media, The Record, etc. to get out the message.
  • Engage Green Office Program participants to help spread the word and print/post updated signage for their departments.
  • Supply updated information to Human Resources for use during new employee orientation.

Do you have additional ideas for how we can get the word out? Contact Cassie Hage (

What can YOU do to help?

Are you passionate about recycling? Excited to teach others about the new recycling guidelines? Here are some ways that you can contribute to the solution:

  • Always read the signs on the receptacles and properly sort your waste, on campus and at home!
  • Volunteer to educate others about sorting waste during a green event or at one of the main campus dining facilities. To sign up to receive volunteer opportunity alerts, fill out this brief form.
  • Print and post a sign in the spaces where you work, learn, and play. Link for a downloadable PDF will be available soon!

Long-term Strategies

The Office of Sustainability has a robust Strategic Plan with strategies around reducing waste and increasing recycling. These strategies will be pursued on an ongoing basis through 2020. Examples of such strategies include:

  • Provide consistent color-coded waste receptacles and signage throughout the university that aligns label colors, bag colors, and dumpster colors.
  • Assign recycling and composting staff champions at major dining facilities and train kitchen staff on pre-consumer composting and recycling practices biannually.
  • Streamline Dining Services purchasing practices to make properly separating the waste stream easier and more convenient to consumers.
  • Promote use of reusable serviceware, including plates and Eco To-Go, over single-use products in dining facilities.
  • Train dining staff quarterly to default to using reusable serviceware.
  • Expand and promote the reusable mug discount.
  • Expand post-consumer compost collection to all dining facilities.
  • Increase amount of seating in the DUC and Bears’ Den to encourage dine-in eating.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: So, how bad is it?

A: When participating in the annual RecycleMania competition, the recycling problem became very apparent. WashU dropped in all areas, both in the volume diverted and within the ranks of competing schools. For example, in 2015, our diversion rate over the competition period was 45%. In 2016, the diversion rate over the same period was 34%. In one category, the “Per Capita Classic”, WashU went from ranking 9 out of 232 in 2015 to 110 out of 208 in 2016.

Since January 2016, at least 52% of our recycling loads have been rejected from Resource Management. We have been charged an additional $15,782 as fees for additional transportation and landfill tonnage. We have also lost out on $8,810 on recycling rebates. Similarly, about 40% of our compost totes end up going to the landfill due to contamination. In addition to the flat compost rate, we receive a $6 fee per 60-gallon tote that is contaminated. In Spring 2017, the fee will go up to $12 per container. At this pace, waste removal is tripling in cost, which will impact rental costs for administrative and academic departments.

Our goal for 2020 is to achieve a 55% diversion rate – an 11% drop is a huge step back for this strategic goal.

Q: What CAN be recycled?

A: Paper products, cartons and cardboard; glass; metal (aluminum, foil, steel); rigid plastics #1-5 and 7. NO TO-GO BOXES OR PAPER CUPS. 

Q: What CAN be composted?

A: Food and certified compostable serviceware (paper to-go boxes, napkins and PLA cups and cutlery, etc). Many uncoated brown paper products (like cardboard or paper bags) can be composted, as well.

Q: It seems like the rules are always changing – why is that?

A: When you send something to the landfill, that is it: end of life. Simple, right? However, with both recycling and composting, companies are taking our waste and developing a commodity, creating jobs and contributing to the economy. In order for recycling centers to remain revenue generating, the materials must be converted into a commodity that buyers want as a feed stock for their operations or as a final product.

Like any commodity, sorted recyclables are responsive to both the demands and the volatility of the market. For example, when cardboard was selling for a premium, it made more sense to separate and bale cardboard to get a bigger rebate. But when the market dipped, single stream became more cost effective.

The materials a recycling facility will accept is influenced by the sorting process, how the materials act in the automatic sorting line. For example, flat plastic packaging acts more like paper than a plastic beverage container, so the automatic system that is designed to sort out plastic containers will miss the flat plastic packaging. Rules may also change as technology advances. We used to be told to take caps off of bottles because lids and bottles are different types of plastic. Now, machinery has developed that can easily separate the two plastics, so you should leave the lids on. If lids are loose, they fall thorough sorting screens and become land-filled as waste.

For more waste FAQs, click here.