UVa continues plastic recycling amid global changes

RecyclingMonster - The University of Virginia will continue to collect and recycle all plastics, even as local authorities and other schools are revising guidelines in the face of a collapsing global market for the materials.

Despite efforts to recycle and compost, the amount of waste generated has ticked up slightly in recent years. The university wants to landfill less than 2,000 tons annually by 2035, a number roughly 75% less than the 8,000 tons sent to landfill in 2017. To make a dent, officials said UVa must continue to recycle plastics on top of reduction efforts.

"Recycling has to be a part of that," said Jesse Warren, UVa program manager for sustainability. "We remain committed to recycling plastics 1-7 and plastic film."

Across Grounds, a student or staff member could toss their trash into bins labeled for landfill, paper recycling or plastic/metal/glass recycling.

"We learned years ago that it was easier to train our staff to do detailed sorting than to ask 39,000 people to do it for us," Warren said.

When bins fill up, staff members take them to a small on-Grounds sorting facility, where they are baled and picked up by a contractor, Sonoco. The contractor then hauls the material to facilities in North Carolina, where it is then separated out, sold and recycled. UVa gets rebates for some items.

UVa's contract with Sonoco expires next year, but Warren said the university will continue to require in future contracts that each item picked up is actually recycled, not sent to a landfill down the line.

"The effort is absolutely worth it," he said.

Other agencies, faced with financial issues ever since China stopped accepting plastics in 2018, have made different choices.

This month, James Madison University announced it would stop recycling most glass and plastic collected on its campus after the city of Harrisonburg decided to stop accepting commingled glass and plastic. Richmond-area localities have seen increasing fees for existing recycling programs.

Phil McKalips, director of the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority, which handles local recycling and trash efforts, said the authority's board decided in February to stop accepting plastics 3-7 at the McIntire Road facility.

Previously, local residents could drop off plastics 1-7 — which includes common household products such as soda bottles, milk jugs, PVC pipes and plastic bags — as well as cardboard, glass and aluminum. The RSWA then hauled the plastic to its Meade Avenue facility and baled it. Then it was shipped to Sonoco, which sorted the items and then sold or trashed or recycled them.

"But I talked with a manager at Sonoco, and he said that basically, the 3-7 plastics were just landfilled," McKalips recalled. "It just seemed dumb for us to be hauling it, baling it and then shipping it for it to just end up in a landfill."

McKalips said that plastics 1 — typically soda bottles — and 2 — typically milk jugs and cleaning bottles — comprise 50% of items dropped off for recycling. There's still a market for those plastics.

So, the authority decided to reject the other plastics — effectively sending them to a local landfill via trash haulers rather than a distant one via recycling haulers — and begin accepting plastics 1 and 2 separately. That allows the authority to bale plastics 1 and 2 and sell them as individual — and more marketable — products and sell them directly to Sonoco, which also manufactures recycled plastic packaging.

"Right now, we're making nothing on plastics; hopefully, this will bring some revenue" McKalips said. "And maybe, hopefully, people will think more about what they use and how they use it."

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