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:
- 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.
- 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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