MIT recycling rate cut in half due to contamination levels

Changes in recycling industry force waste to be rejected

The amount of recycling that MIT has collected has nearly halved over the past two months, from 49 percent of total waste to 27 percent, due to lower allowable levels of contamination and stricter enforcement of these levels by China.

MIT’s waste management is handled by the MIT Department of Facilities and its Recycling and Materials Management division. The division is led by Ruth Davis, whose office is trying to reduce the amount of trash generated and increase the amount of materials recycled or reused by better educating the MIT community.

In an effort they call “Reusable Revolution,” Davis and her team are working alongside custodial services and UA and GSC Sustainability to help the recycling rate recover, such as by changing signs to be more clear about what can and cannot be recycled.

MIT’s recycling rate has gone down mainly due to food waste being in the single stream recycling and various lab wastes being rejected, according to Davis.

If food waste is in the recycling, it is not accepted. “[Recyclable] things must be empty and clean,” Davis told The Tech in an interview, “If you have an iced coffee, the straw is trash and you need to dump out the ice.”

In addition, blue gloves and pipette tips and boxes in the single stream recycling are rejected because of health concerns regarding anything that looks like medical waste. Davis’s division is currently working on a separate stream for lab waste.

Similar drops in recycling fractions have occurred all over the world. In January of this year, China began rejecting all would-be recycling with contamination levels above 0.5 percent, a large cut from the former allowable contamination level of 4 percent. China is lowering the contamination rate out of concern for the environment and public health as part of its “Green Fence” and “Green Shield” initiatives.

China is the main importer of solid waste in the world, processing 80 percent of the world’s recycling, focusing on paper and plastic.

In addition to the impact that lower recycling rates have on the environment, this change also increases how much MIT is paying for waste management. MIT pays for trash by the tonnage, and receives some compensation on recycling depending on how much money the vendor made from the recycled materials.

Davis was unable to share the cost per ton of materials nor a typical reimbursement rate for the recycling because that is proprietary information and other companies could underbid MIT’s current vendor.

MIT produces between 300 and 400 tons of waste materials in a typical month. The rate is closer to 400 tons during the semester and lower during the summer and winter.

As of May, all five of MIT’s waste compactors aren’t outputting any recycling due to contamination levels. Davis is working on restricting access to at least some of the compactors, such as in Stata, in the hopes that this will reduce contamination.

Davis cautions the MIT community to think critically about what is and is not reusable as well as the lifetime of the products they buy.

For example, a padded envelope is not recyclable and belongs in the trash. “You can’t use it for anything,” Davis said, “because you can’t separate the plastic bubbles from the paper.”

Disposable utensils and non-food compostable items usually get treated as trash as well, because of food contamination on the utensils and the fact that those items are only compostable in industrial composters. Instead, people should use reusable utensils and dishware to cut down on waste.