Guilford reacts to changes in recycling system

China’s 2018 ban on forgein garbage has urged U.S. cities like Greensboro to quickly make changes in their recycling habits.

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China’s 2018 ban on forgein garbage has urged U.S. cities like Greensboro to quickly make changes in their recycling habits.

In response to China’s ban on foreign garbage in 2018, cities all over the United States, including Greensboro, have been pressed to make belated changes to their recycling programs. These efforts are reflected right here at Guilford College as students and faculty members try to raise awareness about the importance and effects of good recycling practices.

The history of recycling is enormous—it has existed for so long that it’s become an integrated part of our culture. From lessons taught in elementary school to the disagreements around environmentalism in our political climate, recycling is as familiar to the average American citizen as reducing is to reusing.

What many U.S. citizens don’t realize about recycling though is that it hasn’t always been a homegrown process. According to the Sierra Club, the U.S. began shipping its low-value and contaminated recyclables to China in 1992. This simple method of getting rid of waste meant that the U.S. recycling system became increasingly lax and disorganized.

Things weren’t always like this, however.

In the 1970s and ’80s, the U.S. recycling system was drastically different from how it is today.

“In most cities that were progressively attempting to recycle, they had multiple containers for all of those different streams … only glass, only paper, only cardboard, only aluminum,” said Guilford College’s Director of Environmental Sustainability David Petree.

Those streams that he is referring to are what distinguish different types of recycling systems. Those of the ’80s consisted of multiple-streams—different ones for each recyclable material. The system after the ’90s, however, shifted to single-stream, where all kinds of materials were placed into a single container and processed all together.

While this process was cheaper, it also caused contamination, meaning that non-recyclables are mixed in with the recyclable material.

In 2018, China banned all imports of foreign trash, according to the Sierra Club. This action was interpreted in the U.S. to be hostile, but it turned out to have unexpectedly positive effects.

According to The Guardian, the poorer countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh who have been on the receiving end of our waste will likely benefit from the decreased input.

Cities all over the U.S. became motivated to fix their broken recycling systems once they realized there was a need to. While the issues with our systems are not completely solved, they are being improved every day.

“It’s giving America and other countries an opportunity to fix it, because it was a broken system,” said Petree.

In Greensboro, several changes have been made. According to, glass, pots, large plastic items and shredded paper are no longer accepted in its residential recycling program. Glass bottles and jars can be taken to locations specified on the website, and items such as milk cartons, large plastic items and shredded paper should be dumped in the trash.

As an important figure for sustainability on campus, Petree oversees the Guilford waste stream, manages the composting of the cafeteria’s food waste (which averages about 40,000 pounds of compost a year), helped to build the Guilford farm and works with the grounds department to help with grounds maintenance.

Guilford College also participates in RecycleMania, a friendly eight week competition among schools in North America with the goal of bringing awareness to recycling.

Kathleen Caspersen, who is a junior and a sustainability apprentice for David Petree, participated in RecycleMania last year. As part of a six-week-long program, she and other students tallied up the number of dumpsters around campus.

“A lot of students got back onto campus, and a lot of rules and regulations had changed with recycling,” said Caspersen about how Guilford’s recycling program had changed over the summer.

These changes are similar to what has taken place in Greensboro since last year, such as how glass and milk cartons are no longer recyclable. Caspersen and other students set up a table at the beginning of this year to educate the student community about these changes.

The theme of sustainability is also being passed along strongly in many classes taught at Guilford.

In Modern Environmental Studies, senior Natalie Whitmeyer, who is double majoring in Environmental Science and English, is doing a group project on campus sustainability.

“We have to look at the recycling efforts on campus and what Guilford’s doing sustainability-wise,” said Whitmeyer.

Her group volunteers at the Guilford farm every week and also sent out a student-wide survey on Survey Monkey to ask about recycling habits on campus.

“A lot of students said that if you’re not an environmental science or sustainable food major, then you don’t really learn about sustainable practices on campus,” said Whitmeyer.

Whitmeyer emphasized how many students said it would be beneficial for professors to teach about sustainability in their classes.

After all, it’s the lack of knowledge and communication which hinders our community from practicing good, sustainable recycling habits. This not only benefits our global environment, but ensures that the campus you live on will be clean and comfortable.


Editor’s note: This story originally was published in Volume 106, Issue 6 of The Guilfordian on Nov. 15 2019.