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Recycling competition has global implications

This article was originally published in print on Oct. 5, 2015.

For the past three weeks, students have spent their Sunday evenings rooting through the trash and recycling bins of residential buildings for the third annual recycling competition. The competition, initiated by the Office of Sustainability, aims to raise awareness of recycling on campus. It stretches for three weeks, giving houses and dorms a chance to take in their numbers and improve. Volunteer judges tackle a few buildings, recording the approximate number of trash items in the recycling and recyclable items in the trash. Avoiding cross-contamination is important because if there is any trash in the recycling, the whole bin is considered trash. A common mistake is trying to recycle pizza boxes, which should be put in the trash because of the grease.

The Outdoor Environmental Club has been known for its Face Your Waste event, in which volunteers collect trash from various campus buildings and display it on Chapin Quad. Students volunteer to monitor the trash, even sleeping overnight near the pile to ensure no one takes anything. While this event makes the waste visible in a culture that stigmatizes the waste and those who manage it, it doesn’t quantify it the same way the competition does, and offers no immediate incentive to change behavior. The average American produces about four pounds of trash daily.

Since the judges change every year, the data is somewhat inconsistent. Sustainability Coordinator Lindsay Chapman uses the event mainly to raise awareness — and there have certainly been some positive effects. “If I look at the trends, what I have seen is an increase in the cleanliness of the recycling streams, [(less trash in the recycling bins)] but the trash streams have remained constant [(we still have a lot of recyclables that are ending up in the trash)],” she said. The winning residential hall receives a free dinner to Bushel and Peck’s with Chapman; most improved halls receive sustainability-themed items such as carabiners and stickers.

As for the new printing charges, while that may reduce overall waste of paper and resources, it also might reduce the recycling rate. However, according to Chapman, that is a risk worth taking “if it means we are wasting less resources. I can find other ways to increase our recycling rate!” she said. The recycling rate is calculated by dividing volume of recyclables by the volume of recyclables plus volume of trash.

Chapman sees the recycling competition gaining popularity. “I think there is an increased awareness this year compared to last year and especially the first year,” she said. “This year we have volunteer judges, and Carl-Lars [Engen’17] and Ari [Cocallas’16] have done a great job getting the word out about the results through social media and the terrarium. I’m sure that not everyone knows, but it will keep growing in popularity every year.”

While the competition, like other sustainability initiatives, raises awareness and improves the efficiency of Beloit College as an institution, these changes aren’t just about the campus. “We need to realize that our attentiveness to simple daily things like correctly disposing of trash and recycling have global implications,” Chapman remarked.

The U.S. exports much of its recycling, contributing to an industry worth about $5 billion annually in plastic scrap alone. Of the world’s 500 million tons of electronic waste and 12 million tons of plastic waste created each year, China imports about 70 percent. China receives 75 percent of aluminum scraps exports from the U.S., 60 percent of scrap paper exports and 50 percent of plastic exports. These exports have been steadily increasing, peaking in 2011 at just over $1 billion. Scrap was the top U.S. export to China by value ($11.3 billion) in 2011.

Reprocessed materials can be used to make a variety of new products such as polar fleeces and stadium seats. Though this brings some benefits to the economy, the materials that cannot be recycled end up in Chinese landfills. Often the trash or recycling is toxic, and the huge volumes pile up into trash mountains that have buried people alive.

The U.S. used to profit from the exports because the country did not need to invest in technology or labor to process it. However, after the Chinese government initiated a Green Fence campaign banning certain foreign garbage in 2013, the U.S. is charged for shipping trash rejected from China. The campaign bans poorly sorted or contaminated shipments, allowing up to 1.5 percent of contaminants for each bale of imported recyclables (including materials such as metal, plastics, textiles, rubber and recovered paper). American recyclers are also subject to demurrage charges while the materials are stored in ports. In the first three months of the ban, China halted 55 shipments and rejected 7,600 tons of recycled materials. There have been reports of waste being sent to countries like Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia — and rejected waste going to landfills.

Because China controls much of the recycling market, this campaign has forced western countries to rethink their dependence on cheap exports.

However, there is also much left to be confirmed about China’s recycling infrastructure. The system is supposedly made up of mostly small-scale, often family-owned firms using low technology. The country’s lack of regulation raises fears about environmental and health consequences, such as acid pollution, toxic fumes and worker health.

Several states have enacted legislation banning non-reusable plastic bags, or even paper bags. In 2014, California became the first state to ban single-use plastic bags at large retail stores. The state also charges a minimum 10 cents for recycled paper bags, reusable plastic bags and compostable bags at certain locations. Hawaii also bans plastic bags and paper bags with less than 40 percent recycled material. The District of Columbia and North Carolina have similar bans. But many argue these piecemeal bans are not enough to adjust to a demanding recycling system.

The Bureau of International Recycling has published guidelines for environmentally sound waste management. The EPA has created a guide for sustainable materials management up until 2020, and has been advocating for stronger public and private partnerships. However, the newest recycling plants in the U.S. are only from 2003, leaving much room for improvement.

“We are a part of the global trash and recycling system, whether we like it or not,” Chapman remarked. “Doing our part to send clean streams of recycling, whether that is remanufactured here in the States or overseas in China because of lower wage rates and more remanufacturing opportunities, means that less trash will be incorrectly disposed of.”

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