China’s ban on certain plastics recycling is trickling down to Virginia Tech.

This fall, new blue stickers will be added to university recycle bins indicating a slight change — only plastic items labeled with #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) will be accepted. Plastic items marked with #3 through #7 will not be taken.

Also, campus dining centers are exploring new disposable and recyclable forks, knives, spoons, and water cups. The current plastic utensils and water cups no longer can be recycled as a result of the restrictions.

This shift is not unique to Virginia Tech. It is happening across the country. In an effort to clean up and reduce pollution, China announced this past summer that it no longer will accept certain scrap materials, including some plastics, from the United States. For years, China was the largest single consumer of recyclable materials from the United States, according to the National Waste & Recycling Association.

Now, U.S. recycling operations are changing collection requirements to meet China’s rules.

“They just want the material that can be recycled,” said Alan Cummins, executive director of the Montgomery Regional Solid Waste Authority (MRSWA), which manages and collects certain solid waste and recyclable items in Montgomery County, including at Virginia Tech. “It’s a new learning curve.”

The authority gathers and sends these items to a recycling vendor in Roanoke — Recycling and Disposal Solutions.  

At Virginia Tech, officials from the university’s Office of Sustainability are preparing to publicize and enforce the recycling restrictions, which were effective July 1 through MRSWA. Officials are printing new decals that this fall will be added to hundreds of recycling bins across campus, located both outside and inside of buildings.

“We are doing our due diligence to modify what we need to do,” said Denny Cochrane, sustainability program manager at Virginia Tech.

He said he doesn’t believe the changes will affect the university’s annual recycling rate, which measures the amount of campus waste that is recycled, compared with how much is diverted to landfills. The rate was 39 percent in 2017.

With the changes, there is a greater emphasis on recycling correct and clean items, Cummins said.

Soon, the rules will be clearly labeled on Virginia Tech recycling bins — Recycle: Glass, paper/cardboard, plastics #1 and #2, and empty cans. Keep out: Plastic bags, Solo cups, styrofoam and take out containers, cables and wires, foods and liquids, and clothing and toys.

“It’s a focus on education,” Cochrane said. “Read the signs and follow what the signs are asking you to do.”

Also, Dining Services is researching and considering purchasing compostable or #1 and #2 plastic utensils and water cups as alternatives to the current versions, which can’t be recycled, said Anthony Purcell, who is assistant director of Southgate Food Center, a hub for the university’s Dining Services operation.

For now, dining centers will use the nonrecyclable versions until new options are found, he said.

“In the end, we want to operate in a way that’s responsible and eco-friendly,” Purcell said. “Our track record would demonstrate that we have a tremendous commitment to that.”

Already, Dining Services runs a robust composting operation, diverting food waste to Royal Oak Farm in Evington, Virginia.

These recycling restrictions come as Virginia Tech continues to focus on sustainability across campus. The Virginia Tech Climate Action Commitment, created in 2009, lays out goals for the campus’ recycle rate, along with 13 other plans to increase the university’s sustainability, from improving energy efficiency in campus buildings to minimizing waste in various ways.

Meanwhile, the university’s student-run Game Day Green Tailgating Team is in full swing for football season.

For recycling activity to increase across campus, “it has to do with education and making this part of the culture,” Cochrane said.

Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone