Don't be an aspirational recycler
Updated: Sep 30, 2020
If you’ve followed along with my series on the three “Rs:” reduce, reuse, and recycle, then you already know that "recycle" is purposely listed as the last option because the other two are better choices. Still, single-stream recycling is a wonderful service that we should take advantage of. However, it can be complicated! There’s too much to share about this topic in just one blog, but we’re working on a thorough Resource Page that will include a Recycling Guide in the very near future, so check back for that! This blog is focused primarily on recycling at home, through the provider that most of us in NCW use: Waste Management (WM). Read a few tips at the end to find out other recycling options past your curbside bin.
I like the advice: “don’t be an aspirational recycler.” Meaning, don’t feel so great about recycling that every time you question whether or not something is recyclable, you toss it in and think, “Oh well, it’ll get sorted out if it’s not!” I have been guilty of this myself, but it only causes more work for Waste Management down the line and eventually, it increases the costs to us as consumers of their service. One thing to keep in mind - even though it might look like it on your bill, recycling is not a free service. Depending on where you live, the cost of recycling may be built into your garbage bill. The option of adding a recycling can at home “for free" is there to encourage you to do so. But you are definitely paying for WM to collect and sort your recyclables.
The topic of recycling has become even more complicated since China announced they will no longer accept most US recyclables. While you might think that we're working towards a world where eventually everything will be easily recycled, we're actually likely going the other way. Many local places have stopped accepting glass. As domestic markets work themselves out, it's not crazy that companies that collect and sort (then sell) recyclable materials, like Waste Management, might actually start accepting less materials in the future.
I recently had the awesome opportunity to visit Waste Management’s Spokane Materials and Recycling Technology (SMaRT) Center. My tour guide was Steven Gimpel, their Recycling Education & Outreach Coordinator for the region. The facility opened in 2012, and it’s where all of our curbside recycling goes to be sorted. It seems there are lots of myths about what really happens to our recycling once we put it in the bin, so it was pretty cool to see how it’s actually handled. The SMaRT center is at the same time both incredibly high-tech and state-of-the-art, and also extremely dependent on the compliance of the people who send their materials there (you and me). Watching paper, glass, aluminum, tin, cardboard and all kinds of plastics be sorted along the line in this 62,000 square foot facility was incredible. But it also allowed me to see how we recycle at home really does matter. The most noticeable issue is plastic bags. It tangles up in the machinery and they have to stop the sorting multiple times per day to clear it out. Steven said on a good day, it's only four times, but worst case, it can be about every half hour - up to 20 times per day! In addition to bags, the same problem can be caused by things like hoses, ropes and wires. These items, plus plastic grocery bags and other thin plastic film, should never be put in your WM blue bin, but rather taken to one of the several grocery stores in the valley that collect them for recycling.
Here’s something I heard during the tour that I think is extremely helpful: there is a big difference between what is recyclable, and what is sortable. Yes, that piece of plastic may have a recycling symbol on the bottom. But can it be efficiently sorted out from the rest of all the other plastic items in the bin? And once it is, is it worth it for a company to buy it from Waste Management and recycle it into something new? The answer to those questions is why even though plastic may have a number 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 on it, it might not easily be recycled. Plastics #1 and #2 are relatively easy to sort and easy to recycle. Plastic #1 (PETE or PET) is typically clear in color and found in pop bottles, salad dress containers, peanut butter jars and mouthwash bottles. Plastic #2 (HDPE) is regularly colored or white and can be found in laundry detergent bottles, milk jugs, and yogurt tubs.
However, according to Steven, plastics #3-7 are problematic to sort out, and generally lead to contamination of those "good" plastics (#1 and #2, preferably in bottle shapes). While #3-7 can technically be recycled, the markets for buying them are weak and turbulent. Also, considering other metrics such as greenhouse gas reduction, #3-7 plastics have some of the worst return on investment in the recycling stream, according to Steven. He adds that as a state, 15% of our garbage is still paper, including cardboard. So he says, rather than focus in on these confusing plastic details, we're better off focusing on things that are easy to collect and recycle, like cardboard.
So when possible, it sounds like working to avoid #3-7 plastics is a good idea. Number 4, low-density polyethylene (LDPE), is found in grocery shopping bags, and can be recycled but again, not through Waste Management (see my tip about grocery store drop-off sites below). Number 6 plastics (polystyrene, more commonly known as styrofoam) is considered difficult to recycle (see my tip about Dolco below) and is also not accepted by Waste Management.
Check out this video to see some of the impressive equipment that the SMaRT center uses to sort plastics. It can "see" which type of plastic it is and then allows it to drop or shoots a puff of air to separate it.
Here’s some tips for recycling past what goes in your blue bin:
You likely know that plastic grocery bags should be bundled and taken to the grocery store. But a secret tip is that more than just grocery bags can be recycled this way. In general, the way to know if the plastic film can be recycled along with these bags is that it should stretch, not snap and break. Plastic film that can be included with grocery bags includes newspaper bags, case wrap (like what wraps a case of water bottles), napkin, paper towel, bathroom tissue wrap, bread bags, dry cleaning bags, air pillows (like what comes in boxes when you order something online), food storage bags like Ziplocks, and produce bags. I’ve even found some bubble wrap-type packaging from Amazon (see photo) has a symbol on it for recycling it at grocery stores. For more information including drop-off sites, visit plasticflimrecycling.org.
We have a unique opportunity here in the valley to recycle #6 plastic: polystyrene. Take your (clean and dry!) egg cartons, meat trays, take-out containers and "Styrofoam" cups to Dolco, at 1121 S. Columbia St in Wenatchee.
The overall lesson is, while an item may be recyclable in theory, it might not be a good option in reality. Knowing a little bit about what goes on behind the scenes can help you make smarter purchases, find ways to reuse or reduce instead of recycling, and stop being one of those “aspirational recyclers” who has a blue bin filled to the brim each week.