How China is changing UNO’s recycling program

Photo courtesy of

Charlotte Reilly

China has stopped accepting recycling from the west coast, and it’s affecting the University of Nebraska at Omaha, too.

States like Oregon and California can no longer ship their recycling to China. They are looking for new markets, which means Omaha has more competition.

In the NPR article “China Has Refused To Recycle The West’s Plastics. What now?” Sara Kiley Watson states, “In 2017, China passed the National Sword policy banning plastic waste from being imported — for the protection of the environment and people’s health — beginning in January 2018.”

First Star Recycling in Omaha has had to change some of its policies in order to ensure less contamination. Commercial properties have to separate cardboard from other recyclables. Residential properties, including campus housing, do not have to follow the new changes.

At every campus building (not housing), students and staff now have to breakdown large cardboard boxes and place them behind the recycling bins, instead of in them. Small cardboard boxes, such as boxes to microwave dinners, can still be placed in the recycling bin.

In addition, custodians can no longer put tied bags of recycling into the compacter. Now, they have to open the bag and dump the contents. The only exceptions are Hefty Energy Bags and bags of shredded paper. If the bags are full of food contaminants, the custodians will throw the bags away.

To make the trash and recycling easier to collect, bags are now colored. Landfill waste are in clear bags; recyclables are in blue bags; Hefty Energy Bags are orange; shredded paper is in clear bags; cardboard is not bagged.

UNO sustainability coordinator Sarah Burke said it’s extremely important for students to not throw food waste into the recycling.

“If the recycling is contaminated, it will have to go into the landfill,” Burke said. “The custodians don’t have time to dig through bags of recycling to rescue the non-contaminated items.”

Students should scrape food off of plastic plates and dump liquids out of plastic bottles, Burke said.

“Food is the number one contaminant in recycling,” Burke said. “We aren’t asking you to go to a sink and scrub the container until it is spotless, but don’t put a half-full bottle of soda into the recycling. Dump it out first.”

Recycling doesn’t just protect the environment. It also saves UNO money.

“When you drop off recycling, you don’t have to pay for it, but when you go to a landfill, there’s a dumping fee,” Burke said.

If students recycle every recyclable product, UNO could use the extra money to fund other campus programs. Recycling centers also create jobs. People have to separate and sell the products. At a landfill, less help is needed.

UNO is working to become a zero-waste campus by 2050. Burke said she hopes UNO will start composting and other unique recycling programs, like recycling writing utensils, in the future. UNO students can help achieve zero waste by recycling everything they can and eliminating contamination.