FAYETTEVILLE -- A recycling broker "disposed of" materials placed in recycling bins on the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville campus, the university announced Monday.
Smurfit Kappa, an international company whose business includes recycling services, beginning in January took a mix of plastic bottles, aluminum cans and glass "and disposed of it as it would other waste materials," UA spokesman Mark Rushing said in an email. The company said the mixed recycling is no longer economically viable, according to UA's announcement.
In total, approximately four tons of bottles and cans were treated as waste, Rushing said.
Smurfit Kappa treated the materials as waste because of recent global changes in how recyclable materials are handled, the university stated. Market upheavals include restrictions enacted by China in 2018 on imported materials. Sustainability advocates said these changes make it more costly for the recycling of certain materials and for many programs in the U.S. to operate, though markets vary by region.
UA learned "about a week ago" of the change involving the mixed bottles and cans, Rushing said. The materials are no longer being treated as waste while the university considers paying an extra processing fee to separate cans and plastics, Rushing said.
The company did not inform UA sooner about how it was handling bottles and cans because it was searching for new markets to possibly sell the materials, said Marty Rusk, vice president of North America recycling for Smurfit Kappa.
"You don't want to kill a program and find a market a week later," Rusk said. He also said some plastics gathered at UA, including materials like two-liter soda bottles, were recycled and not thrown away.
Rusk said the company is now working with the university "on some changes to keep the program viable," with a focus on having bins for separate materials rather than what's known as a commingled approach to recycling.
Smurfit Kappa does not have any large recycling service contracts in Arkansas apart from working with UA, Rusk said, though it has recycling facilities in Fayetteville, Fort Smith and North Little Rock.
"It's just a changed world, where some of the plastics -- the threes through sevens -- have no home right now," Rusk said, referring to categories of plastic materials.
The university described Smurfit Kappa as the primary recycling broker for the campus, but Rushing said different vendors provide recycling services for campus residence halls and athletic facilities.
In a typical month, Smurfit Kappa handles a little over 31 tons in recycling from UA, which includes just over one ton of commingled bottles and cans, Rushing said.
Paper and cardboard materials are also collected for recycling, and that collection would not change, Keith Roberts, UA's director of facility operations and maintenance for educational and general facilities, said in a statement.
"We met with recycling vendor representatives last week to get more information about the situation and what can be done moving forward. We are currently looking into all potential alternatives as we remain committed to recycling as much of our waste as we can," Roberts said.
In a statement, Roberts said "we expect that we will need to change some signage and begin to educate our community about any change we may have to implement."
Roberts last week referred questions to Rushing. Asked if UA was considering working with a different primary recycling broker, Rushing said "not at this time."
UA has established campus goals to reduce the amount of waste it sends to a landfill. Solid waste goes to the Eco-Vista landfill near Springdale, according to UA's 2018 Climate Action Plan.
The university sent 2,038 tons of solid waste to the landfill last year, down from 2,570 tons the previous year, according to the university's 2018 annual report from its Office for Sustainability.
UA has set a goal to be what's known as a zero-waste campus by 2040. "This means that at least 90% of discarded materials at the University of Arkansas must be diverted from the landfill," states the website for UA's Office for Sustainability. A near-term goal is to have 50% diversion from landfill by 2021, according to UA's Office for Sustainability.
Eric Boles, director of the sustainability office, said campus recycling operates separately from city programs.
"Unfortunately, I think all the plastics are dragging down the value of mixed cans and bottles," Boles said.
He said there have been recent efforts to increase recycling on campus.
"I think everybody is trying to make recycling work. It can be very challenging because you have to go on the word of these recycling brokers," Boles said.
If a market is lacking for certain materials, "we're going to have to spend more money than it costs to landfill" in order to recycle those materials, Boles said.
But what might be true for certain kinds of materials at UA would not be true for all recycling, Boles said.
"I think, in general, recycling is more cost effective for us at this time than land-filling," Boles said.
Other campuses around the country have also made diverting waste from landfills a major goal and had to deal with the recent market changes, said Julian Dautremont, director of programs for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, which includes UA as a member.
"It's made recycling more expensive on average than it used to be," Dautremont said. He said campuses are trying to do more to reuse materials on campus rather than rely on recycling markets, which he said are regional in nature.
When recycling collections end up in landfills as waste, "there's a question of how much to communicate and when to communicate back to the campus as to what's going on," Dautremont said.
Campuses can use these situations to stress the importance of placing the proper materials into the appropriate containers, Dautremont said, adding that "aspirational recycling" creates a problem by contaminating recyclable items with nonrecyclable materials.
"The last thing anything wants is to send the message that recycling isn't worthwhile," Dautremont said.
Metro on 06/18/2019