Despite promoting a zero waste by 2020 goal, UC Santa Cruz’s recycling can’t be recycled. Campus affiliates look to educational efforts and infrastructural overhaul as ways to reverse the issue.
For three months, all of UC Santa Cruz’s mixed recycling has bypassed the city’s Dimeo Lane resource recovery facility and gone straight to the landfill. High contamination rates forced the city of Santa Cruz to stop accepting the university’s recycling, beginning last November, until rates improve.
The campus produces about six tons of recyclable material every week. In winter quarter alone, UCSC has already sent nearly 50 tons of recycling to the dump.
The issue is layered, with international pressure on recycling markets affecting local waste programs. It’s also never happened before.
“Of the waste stream the university has historically recycled,” said UCSC resource recovery analyst Chris Leverenz in an email, “this is the first time we have experienced our recyclable materials not being accepted by processing facilities.”
If nothing changes, another 50 tons of recycling could be landfilled before the end of the academic year.
AN ISSUE OF CONTAMINATION
In the two months leading up to the November decision, Dimeo Lane audited campus recycling loads weekly. It consistently found the mixed recycling to be 70 percent contaminated, well above the city’s fluctuating accepted threshold.
The average contamination rate for recycling accepted in the city is 15 percent.
There are two kinds of contamination. The first is non-recyclable items mixed into recycling, which necessitates increased sorting. The second is when food waste and other materials soil recyclable material, rendering it non-recyclable. City of Santa Cruz interim waste reduction manager Kristen Perez said UCSC recycling is contaminated both ways.
“Non-recyclable items included food waste, soiled pizza boxes, [menstrual supplies], coffee cups/red solo cups and used to-go ware,” Perez said. “Also, a majority of potentially good recyclable content was contaminated by non-recyclable items that caused the recyclable items to get wet, moldy and produce foul odors.”
Perez said the city frequently stops accepting recycling and views it as an opportunity for an organization or business to reset and improve recycling practices.
UCSC sends six tons of recycling to the landfill every week. Mixed recycling on campus is about 70 percent contaminated.
“For some time, upon receiving UCSC mixed recycling loads, the City of Santa Cruz recycling center crews would sort out items that were recyclable and send the rest to the landfill,” Perez said in an email. “This effort consumed considerable staff time.”
She also stressed that the halt in accepting campus recycling is temporary.
INTERNATIONAL PRESSURE ON LOCAL RECYCLING
The development between the city’s resource recovery facility and UCSC isn’t an isolated event. It’s affected by international changes— namely China’s recent crackdown on recycling regulations.
“The recycling industry in the U.S. is in free fall,” said sustainability minor co-founder and researcher at Rachel Carson College Kevin Bell. “[…] The United States has been skating on this fiction that we can give it to somebody else and it will magically disappear.”
For decades, China accepted large quantities of low-grade U.S. recycling, often despite high rates of contamination. In 2016, California shipped about 62 percent of its exported recyclables to China. This included about 500,000 tons of plastics. Now, that’s changing.
In recent years, China began regulating exported recycling more strictly and in 2018 it passed the National Sword Policy. This newest policy bans 24 types of materials and recycling with over .05 percent contamination rates.
“This has effectively closed Chinese markets to most international shippers,” said Santa Cruz resource recovery operations manager Bob Nelson in an email.
China’s regulations began impacting Santa Cruz’s recycling in December 2017 and Santa Cruz’s contamination thresholds are at historic lows for all materials, according to the city. Because Dimeo Lane has fewer options for dealing with high contamination and low-grade recycling like UCSC’s, it reroutes campus mixed recyclables to the landfill.
EDUCATION AND INFRASTRUCTURE
Recycling regulations vary from county to county — some materials accepted in Los Angeles County aren’t accepted in Santa Cruz County.
“All the students on this campus come from different counties, different states, different backgrounds,” said third-year and Zero Waste Team coordinator Sana Sheikholeslami. “You have first a need to establish what the recycling rules and regulations are for Santa Cruz County. And currently there isn’t any wide-reaching education about recycling.”
The detailed rules can be hard to remember, especially for students first arriving in Santa Cruz.
“There are so many little things that also build up,” Calsada said. “[…] You can only recycle plastic bags if they’re in a plastic bag, but you can’t recycle recyclables if they’re in a plastic bag.”
It’s not just differences between counties. The lack of uniformity in campus infrastructure can be hard to follow, adding another hurdle to people recycling accurately. For example, there’s composting in the dining halls and library, but not in residential halls.
The Zero Waste Team is addressing these gaps in knowledge. It’s in talks with Colleges, Housing and Educational Services (CHES) to create uniform signage in residential halls and apartments and implement a recycling training for dining hall workers. It also hopes to add a recycling training for first-years to welcome week this fall.
“The key will be all of us working together,” said UCSC associate vice chancellor for Physical Planning, Development and Operations Traci Ferdolage in an email. “Our department, in collaboration with the Sustainability Office and CHES, are working toward developing a more robust end-user diversion education program and hope to roll it out in the near future.”
While many students and administration are zeroing in on educational fixes, others would rather address UCSC’s waste infrastructure. Co-founder of the sustainability minor and Rachel Carson College researcher Kevin Bell is hesitant to blame personal behavior instead of systems in place.
“If what you’re trying to do is […] guilt trip people into doing some of the heavy lifting that we should be doing as a society and as an infrastructure, […]” Bell said, “a lot of times, you do something that does not change the outcome because we’re in a broken infrastructure.”
If recycling is easy to do, people will do it, Bell said. Starting points are making sure recycling bins are emptied frequently enough and subsidizing zero waste alternatives like metal water bottles and bamboo silverware kits. He also suggested polling students about where more recycling bins should be placed and how recycling can be easier to do.
IMPACT ON THE ZERO WASTE GOAL
UCSC’s regression in recycling comes 10 months before the UC-wide zero waste goal deadline.
The UC-wide zero waste by 2020 goal defines zero waste as 90 percent of waste being diverted from landfills. Before November, UCSC’s diversion rate hovered at about 63 percent. After the Dimeo Lane facility stopped accepting its recycling, it dropped to about 50 percent, said UCSC resource recovery analyst Chris Leverenz. This leaves Zero Waste Team members skeptical of the university’s ability to meet its goal.
But just because mixed recycling is being tossed into the landfill right now, students shouldn’t stop sorting their waste. The city of Santa Cruz resource recovery facility will audit campus recyclables in March and will begin accepting recycling again if contamination rates drop to an acceptable amount.
“This is a goal that we really need to be looking at holistically and really try to work toward it regardless if we have a date or not,” said Zero Waste Team coordinator Sana Sheikholeslami. “Because it’s such a huge issue that’s impacting so many people. It’s beyond deadlines and numbers.”