America’s recycling is going down the drain. where do we go from here – unity commons american universtiy

It’s been nine months since china announced their decision to stop purchasing recyclable waste from the united states. Until recently, about 40 percent of the plastics we recycled were compacted into bales, purchased by china, and melted down into usable material for the production of consumer goods. Now that our biggest customer has bid us adieu, it’s worth taking some time to think about what actually happens to our waste after we toss it into the recycling bin.

Central maine disposal (CMD) in fairfield is responsible for disposing of all of unity college’s non-organic waste. Trash – everything we put into the black bins – is sent to a landfill in norridgewock. CMD bales cardboard (compacts it into cubes) to sell on the market themselves. All mixed recycling is sold to ecomaine – a materials recovery facility (MRF) – to be sorted, baled, and sold for profit.

EcoMaine used to take recyclables for free, but they now charge CMD about $150 per ton for this service. In the past, mrfs had no problem getting rid of bales of plastic. Now, CMD president mickey wing explains, the markets have drastically changed. With china dropping out of the picture, he says that mrfs nationwide are left with an “overabundance” of recyclable waste, and nobody willing to buy it.

Unity college is bearing some of the costs. George washington university hospital one ton of recyclables previously cost $60 to dispose of, but now it’s up to $150. For comparison, one ton of landfill-bound trash costs only $68 to dispose of. Unity is continuing to recycle and compost despite the higher costs, but other institutions and municipalities might not see the point. “A lot of towns in central maine are throwing their recyclables out right now,” wing told me in an interview. “[they’re] waiting for the market to come back because their budgets don’t allow them to pay for that material.”

So why does nobody want to buy our recyclables? Simple answer: they’d be purchasing a worthless product. Contaminants – like thin film plastics, greasy cardboard, waxy papers, and food-coated containers – make up 25 to 35 percent of mixed recycling streams nationwide. MRF workers hand-remove as many contaminants as they can, but there’s simply too much to remove it all. Us au plastic grocery bags are an overwhelming culprit: they clog up the sorting machines, which are shut down to remove the built-up materials. The increased time and labor (and, by extension, funds) needed to pick out contaminants is concerning, but the bigger problem is the contaminants that aren’t removed. When greasy paper products sneak into the slurry of recycled paper pulp in a MRF, the oils will stay bonded to the fibers. The final product ends up blotchy and oil-stained. Throwing greasy plates into the recycle bin unwittingly ruins an otherwise-clean batch of paper.

Sometimes mrfs won’t even attempt to recycle a particular load. “it’s really unfortunate,” wing says, “because we’ve trained the whole world to recycle and save the earth, and now you’ve got a lot of people…recycling, and their towns are throwing it away, or it’s going to a MRF…and they’re pulling out ten, fifteen, twenty percent, and then the rest of it goes back to a burner plant and gets burned because it’s so contaminated they can’t recycle it.”

As unity college students, we can sleep a little easier at night knowing that our waste footprint is lower than most. Unity sent 93.4 tons of solid waste to landfills last year, constituting 53 percent of our total waste stream. Compost (23 percent), mixed recycling (13 percent), and cardboard recycling (10 percent) accounted for the remainder. (it is worth noting that, according to chief sustainability officer jennifer dehart, a significant portion of that 53 percent is construction debris. Our day-to-day waste distribution is probably majority-non-landfill). On average, institutions of a similar size landfilled nearly twice that much and composted virtually nothing, according to a 2017 survey by the national association of college and university business officers and the american public power association.

A number of successful programs have been implemented to redistribute where our waste ends up. In 2016, unity switched from backyard-style composting to industrial composting with an anaerobic digester through agri-energy in exeter. This switch allows for all organic waste – including meat, dairy, and other foods that can’t be backyard composted – to be diverted from the landfill and converted to biofuel. All food packaging and single-use cutlery on campus can be composted as well. Washington university eye center while anaerobic digestion isn’t a perfect 100% closed-loop cycle, it is still far less wasteful than landfilling or recycling. Other waste-reduction successes include the green box program and the removal of all paper towels from certain residence halls’ restrooms.

Still, the game has changed, and we need to confront what happens to our waste after we throw it out. Recognizing that recycling isn’t “good for the environment,” but is rather just a better alternative than the landfill, is an important first step. The fact that we landfill less than other colleges our size is something to celebrate, but we shouldn’t fall for the myth that our single-stream waste – 22.7 tons in 2017 alone – isn’t problematic. There’s only so much that unity college can do on an institutional level to reduce our total waste. The rest is up to individuals. But how do we convince students to produce less waste? “that’s the big question,” says dehart, “how do you change behaviors?… creating these social norms, which takes time and takes thought. Best universities 2015 you really have to think about what the obstacles might be in people’s minds, and they might not be the ones you think they are.”

Take pride in the fact that our school has taken concrete steps to reduce total waste, but don’t pat yourself on the back just yet. Hold on to all of your recyclables and landfill-bound trash for a week, and see for yourself how much you produce. Think about where all that waste is going, and then think about what you can do to improve the system. Sure, recycling disposable plastic cups is better than landfilling them, but it’s even better to just stop using them altogether. The next time you go to the store, think about every item in your cart. Is it something you need? If so, is it something you could borrow, purchase secondhand or package-free, or make yourself? Changing our behavior isn’t easy, but as america’s next generation of environmental leaders, it’s on us to set the example for what modern zero-waste living can look like.