How Global Recycling Markets Impact Rice

Header image

Recycling is in the news, and not in a good way. Recent challenges in global recycling markets and municipal recycling programs have peppered the news at a level that I’ve not seen in years. Ordinarily, recycling and solid waste rarely gain mention in the media. These are, of course, not ordinary times. The well-regarded FiveThirtyEight blog articulated the challenges facing recycling programs in an entry dated January 10th of this year. The one word summary is “China” and in particular that country’s dramatic reduction in the amount of recyclables they are willing to import and process. That material needs to go somewhere, and with the changes in China, the markets for many recyclables have crashed, causing disarray.

So, how does this affect Rice?

The biggest impact we’re seeing is that our recycling provider, Waste Management, is considerably more vigilant about reducing “contamination” in the recycling that we send to them, because the changed market conditions are forcing them to raise their level of expectations of material quality and purity. Contamination in Rice’s recycling stream most commonly comes from food and liquid waste, plastic bags, and inclusion of #6 plastics (which include the ever-popular Solo cups).

This spring, my office will be working with the EcoReps, the GSA Sustainability Committee, and others to help educate the campus community about what is recyclable and what is not (see Figure Above). In particular, it’s important for the campus community to know that otherwise recyclable materials with even modest amounts of food and liquid contamination will not be recyclable unless they are clean and dry. The figure below provides guidance with respect to what is recyclable, and what must be sent to the landfill based on current conditions.

If Rice is unable to manage contamination, we might have to reduce the variety of materials that we can accept in our recycling stream, especially those that tend to be correlated with potential contamination. But, we’re not to that point yet. Before you panic, check out my blog posting from 2008 that provides some perspective on recycling. (While I might change some details if I were to write it today, the overall message still stands.)

A related question, and point of confusion, is that the City of Houston no longer recycles glass in its residential recycling program, so how does this impact Rice? Rice’s recycling is not collected by the City of Houston. As such, glass containers (emptied!) are still recyclable at Rice, as they have been for years.

While the current environment for recycling is cause for concern, we need to remember that avoiding the generation of waste in the first place is a preferable strategy. This requires a rethink of what we consume, and why we consume it. And that’s not just a challenge for a sustainability office — it’s a challenge for all of us.

Any questions about recycling at Rice can be routed to Richard Johnson at