Your ‘aspirational recycling’ is only part of Seattle’s trash problem — Happy Earth Day, Capitol Hill!

It should come as no surprise that Seattle’s recycling game is among the top 10 of major United States cities but it might be a good time for a refresher considering 15 tons of material put in the recycling bin is rejected each day from the sorting plant.

“The Pacific Northwest is pretty good at recycling overall but it’s important to note, just because you recycle something, doesn’t mean it will be recycled,” said general manager of the local Recology/CleanScapes sorting facility Kevin Kelly. Taking the time to learn and properly stow materials will decrease the risk of those carefully sorted items ending up in the trash.

The stakes for getting the sorting done in your home have risen. The demand for Seattle materials has dropped hugely since 2017, Kelly said, due to losing China’s business which accounted for 50% of sales. China withdrew from international mixed-paper and glass markets with no sign of return after deeming the level of contaminants in recycling exports too high. The ban went into effect January 2018 and has impacted markets all over the world. In a few cases, without a buyer, tons of ready to be recycled goods around King County are being sent to the landfill.

According to Recology, the most common recycling mistakes come from a phenomenon that industry professionals call “aspirational recycling.” Common examples of would be contenders are single plastic bags and bubble wrap, food soiled plastic and dirty glass containers. Misplacing compostables can taint an otherwise recyclable batch of paper. Food soiled paper can no longer be recycled and should be composted, whereas coffee cups if rinsed, can be recycled if not labeled compostable.

The harm of aspirational recycling goes beyond the added resources sorting facilities must employ to remove such contaminants. However well intentioned, the practice negatively impacts the effectiveness of recycling and will eventually translate into higher consumer rates as costs to mitigate errors rise:

  1. While modern sorting facilities utilize both human oversight and optical technology to discern materials, items that do not belong will unavoidably contaminate the commodity, decrease their value in secondary markets.
  2. Dooming loose plastic or sticky peanut butter jars to the landfill by virtue of improperly prepping the materials increases the city’s carbon footprint in addition to risking the all too common plant shutdowns that result from incompatible materials gumming up the works.

All containers must be empty, clean and lid free to be recycled. One exception to lids is canned food, where the it should remain partially attached.

Kelly challenges the notion that Capitol Hill apartment dwellers and people with homes in the central city face disadvantages that constrain their ability to fully commit to recycling and composting. “That material goes somewhere. It either goes in the garbage or the recycling — It’s a matter of right sizing your containers on the property because the truth of the matter is, the amount of material remains the same,” he said. The practical solution for renters who live in even micro-units is to have a very small waste basket and a larger recycling container. Some people store compostable materials in a container in the freezer until it is ready to be taken to a composting receptacle.

Amazon packaging may feature prominently in Seattle’s bins but the proper way to recycle bubble wrap and cold packaging can be tricky. Bubble wrap can, indeed, go in the recycling but you’ll need to bundle it together in something like a plastic or paper grocery bag to be safe. Bagging your bags and placing any bubble wrap at the center is the only sure fire way to get them through the sorting machines and on to new possibilities. Single bags are prone to wrap around gears and shut down operations, so facilities won’t even tempt fate and the process preemptively disposes of loose plastic as garbage.

Frozen or cold storage that comes with fresh food deliveries can be melted, emptied and recycled, unless the liquid is not water. In the case that a cold packing container is filled with liquid other than water, it should be either disposed of as trash or, supposedly, taken to a hazardous waste center, according to experts.

If a preponderance of bubble wrap befalls you during the holidays, Recology says some grocery retailers accept the material on site. Look for plastic collection bins often near a store’s entrance.

The sorting process is handled by a massive Rube Goldberg-like machine which carries materials through a maze that systematically employs optical sorting technology, including wind pressure, eddy currents and magnets to separate commingling paper, plastic and glass. The process is facilitated by employees who combat contamination and hazards by hand picking materials like loose plastic bags, clothing, fireworks, and sometimes dead animals from the conveyor belts.

More than 300 tons of recyclables from central and northeast Seattle pass through Recology/CleanScapes sorting facility in SODO before heading to secondary markets for repurposing. But with the drop in demand, the materials are beginning to pile up. The best solution is to start doing everything you can to reduce the amount of packaging and waste material in your life. How that fits in with things like Uber meal delivery and Amazon Fresh we’ll leave to you to sort out.


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19 thoughts on “Your ‘aspirational recycling’ is only part of Seattle’s trash problem — Happy Earth Day, Capitol Hill!

  1. This was a good article. Too bad so many people don’t care enough to do it right. As the person who takes responsibility for the garbage and recycling in our condo I can testify that probably half the residents do not recycle correctly. I spend 4-5 hours a week getting the garbage out of the recycling and vice versa.

    Here are a few things the article misses:
    No styrofoam at all.
    Just because it’s plastic doesn’t mean it’s recyclable.
    Wire coat hangers also gum up the gears.
    About 60 percent of all the cardboard boxes tossed in our recycling bins contain items that aren’t recyclable. Just because it’s in a box doesn’t mean it’s OK.
    No one wants your used tissues!
    Bundled plastic bags are OK, except when they aren’t. Bread bags for example aren’t allowed because of crumbs.

    Add to that the continually changing rules about what the City will accept in the bins (not the City’s fault) makes it enormously confusing to do the right thing. It’s frustrating.

  2. As I often obeseve while managing my rentals, the environmental commitment of the so called green generation ends at breaking down a cardboard box before placing it in recycling. Or even removing that pesky styrofoam from wirhin the box. People are people, namely lazy. Improve the sorting technology if you really want to solve these issues.

  3. What does the article mean by “Frozen or cold storage”? It makes me think of styrofoam and I thought styrofoam was not recyclable in Seattle along with other PP/#5?

    Also, what’s the scoop on plastic tape left on cardboard boxes?

  4. From what I learned at Recology/CleanScapes, who pick up recycling in Central Seattle – styrofoam should not be put in your bin, however, yes Styro Recycle will accept it.

    Per Styro Recycle: Styrofoam is a polymer, so like any other like material it can be broken down and made into other things. the air must be removed, the material ground down and pelleted. The resulting polystyrene can be made into light switch plates, frames, and some toys.

    The best way to prepare styrofoam is to make sure all the stickers and labels are removed, and the container cleaned out.

    Styro Recycle will pick up big quantities in Seattle for around $75, however Recology/Cleanscapes also accepts the material at their 5 store locations, and so will the Shoreline transfer station.

  5. From Styro Recycle

    After talking with Michelle today I wanted to pass on an excerpt for the HuffPost but which is consistent with industry information. Also we accept almost all colors of EPS (Expanded Polystyrene, aka Styrofoam).

    Despite common public perception, paper cups are not easy to recycle. Most paper cups are lined with a thin layer of wax, which makes the cup difficult to recycle. Indeed, one recent study revealed that in major American cities only 10 percent of paper food service containers are recycled, lower than the 16 percent for foam containers. In addition, a paper cup creates more solid waste, by weight, than its foam counterpart.

    Consider also the process used to make a paper cup — harvesting wood, converting wood into paper, then producing the cup itself. “It takes two and a half times as much energy to make a paper cup as it does to make a foam cup,” Christopher Bonanos wrote in New York. “Foam cups are also much lighter than paper cups, reducing the amount of fuel needed to ship them to the store and to cart them away as trash. Foam also produces a lot less manufacturing waste, because there are no paper offcuts to discard.” As a result, a paper cup actually creates a larger carbon footprint than a foam cup,

    We also recycle PE #4 which is your bubble and shrink wrap, grocery bags and other clear and opaque soft film packaging. PE also comes in a “foam” which looks like your kitchen sponge & cardboard too.

  6. Maarten-plastic tape on cardboard boxes is fine as long as it isn’t “excessive” (undefined). The tape is separated when the cardboard is pulped. As to those prepared food boxes, pretty much all the insulation or cold packs are not recyclable. There may be some exceptions since there are a lot of competitive services.

  7. A recent mailer from the city said that we are now allowed to recycle plastic lids as long as we leave them on the plastic containers they came with. This article contradicts this information. Maybe someone from the city can clarify?

  8. It really takes so little effort to recycle properly. The bottom line is that some people….too many where recycling is concerned….are just too damn lazy.

    That said, it’s not realistic to ask people to drive to Kent to drop off their small amounts of styrofoam.

  9. It’s hard to believe anything is recycled from those blue bins on the street. So many people just use them for garbage, contaminating clean recyclables and probably making post-pickup separation infeasible in terms of both time and money. I just assume anything I put in them is going to the landfill, and try to save my recyclables for my home bin.

  10. The problem with styroform is that the density is so low – the amount that would fill a truck is really such a small amount of material that it is not worth doing. It is not worth driving to Kent just to recycle some styrofoam, but if, like me, you go there occasionally anyway it might make sense.

  11. What cardboard is not recyclable? This is confusing and honestly, the rules seem to change all of the time, Recycling is important to me but I am unwittingly guilty of some of the recycling crimes mentioned here.

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