Why It’s More Important Than Ever to Keep Our Recycling Clean

The Office of Campus Sustainability
Release Date: 


Recycling PosterWhen non-recyclable items are tossed into recycling bins, they cause contamination that decreases the quality of the recyclables. At a time when U.S. municipalities are changing or suspending their recycling programs in response to Chinese import restrictions, it’s more important than ever that the U-M community help to keep our recycling streams clean.

For many years, China has been an importer of recyclables from the United States. In late 2017, the Chinese government began enforcing what is known as the “Green Sword,” a series of regulations around imported recyclables. These regulations include limiting the number of import licenses and restricting contamination for all imported recyclables.

These changes have resulted in some U.S. communities being unable to ship their recyclables to China, either because it is too contaminated or there is no one with a license to accept the material. Now, the domestic recycling market is flooded with plastic and paper recyclables, driving down prices and, in some cases, forcing communities to stockpile their recyclables until a market can be found.

Fortunately for U-M, we are feeling minimal impacts from these changes. We deliver our recyclables to the Western Washtenaw Recycling Authority’s (WWRA) Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). Being in the middle of the country, it isn’t feasible to ship our recyclables across the country and then across an ocean to China; WWRA has existing agreements with U.S. and Canadian recycling companies. As a result, we do not foresee any changes to the list of acceptable materials.

The main lesson for U.S. recycling programs, including ours, is the importance of not placing the wrong items into the recycling bins. Items that are not recyclable but are placed in recycling bins are referred to as “contaminants.” Contaminants reduce the quality of the recyclables sold to companies that make new items from them. Imagine that you own a company that makes plastic bumpers for the automotive industry and you want to use recycled plastic. However, when you get your plastic from the MRF, it’s full of the wrong kind of plastic, paper, cardboard and bits of glass. It’s junk and cannot be used! You’d likely switch to using virgin plastic or buy recycled plastic from somewhere that has less contamination.

The University of Michigan Office of Campus Sustainability is working to reduce contamination in our recyclables and we need your help! The less contamination in our recycling bins, the stronger our program will be. Here’s how you can help:

  • Choose reusable items over disposable options.
  • Know Where to Throw. Coffee cups, napkins and plastic bags cannot be placed in campus recycling bins. Please place them in campus landfill bins.
  • Share this info with others. It’s going to take all of us to keep our recycling program strong.
  • If you have questions, ask! Email recycle@umich.edu with all of your recycling concerns. There are no dumb questions!

Our campus community’s recycling efforts support U-M’s waste reduction goal: reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill by 40% by 2025.

Learn more at recycle.umich.edu.