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A Recycling Crisis in Washington?

A Recycling Crisis in Washington?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans recycle approximately 66 million tons of material each year, ranging from paper to scrap metal. Washington, like many of its West Coast neighbors, has particularly high recycling rates, with 4 million tons of waste recycled in 2015 according to the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Why then, did the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission send a letter to WA counties in October asking counties to re-evaluate the recycling of products like glass, shredded paper, and certain plastics?

National Sword

An answer to this question can be found almost a year ago and over 5,000 miles away in China. Since the 1980s, China has purchased the lion’s share of the nation’s recyclables, including 208,000 metrics tons of mixed paper and 75,000 metric tons of scrap plastic in 2017. In 2018 however, the Chinese government enacted the “National Sword” initiative, significantly limiting the recyclable materials it will accept from foreign nations. China initially banned 24 materials, including post-consumer plastic and mixed paper, and demanded that acceptable materials be only 0.5 percent impure, meaning low levels of cross-contamination. It banned 32 additional materials in April, including steel waste, used auto parts, and old ships.

Since the implementation of National Sword, Washington local governments and state-based waste management companies have found the costs to collect, sort, and store recycled materials have risen dramatically while the market for recycled goods is not nearly so lucrative, and for some goods, such as paper and plastic, practically nonexistent. Though new domestic and overseas markets (India, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, primarily) have arisen, it has been difficult to find a substitute for the once-dominant Chinese market.

While recycling may have started out as a program in which different items were sorted into separate bins, most municipalities switched into a single bin module that commingles all recycled materials (there are some exceptions, including Whatcom County). The commingled approach helped to increase the number of people recycling and the number of items submitted, but it also led to a much greater chance of cross contamination.

A typical U.S.-based recycling facility that works with commingled material achieves contamination rates of anywhere between 5-15%. Contaminants can include items that are not accepted for recycling or that don’t belong with the specific materials being recycled. According to the New York Times, the six things most likely to contaminate a batch of recycling are disposable coffee cups, greasy pizza boxes, yogurt cups, oily or dirty takeout containers, plastic bags, and used/unused diapers (eww).

The Fallout

Many municipal waste management plans have targeted recycling goals and it’s been hard to remain committed to these goals in the face of a dwindling marketplace and rising costs. Waste Management and Republic Services, two large waste collection companies that contract with several Washington local governments, have asked their municipal customers for approval to temporarily dispose of items like mixed paper and/or certain plastics — and in many cases, approval has been granted. Some jurisdictions, like Ephrata, Skagit County, Waitsburg, Grant County, Island County, Douglas County, and most of Cowlitz County have dropped certain materials from their recycling programs, while the College Place City Council recently voted to suspend its program altogether.

Additionally, solid waste disposal rates have risen to recover the increased costs associated with the collection and disposal of recycled materials, such as an extra $3.50/month for residents in Walla Walla, as reported in the latest issue of Cityvision.

A Fix for the Future

Across the state, jurisdictions and their partners have been working to keep recycling commitments in place by addressing some of the challenges that National Sword revealed. Prime among these is customer education to discourage what is popularly known as “wishful” recycling, when customers think an item should be recycled but it isn’t accepted as part of the municipal recycling program or when the item contains contaminants and should not be recycled.

King County’s proposed 2019 Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan includes a target of recycling 70% of the county’s waste stream. The county’s Solid Waste Division recently launched a new "Recycle Right" campaign with the tag line “Empty, clean, and dry” to emphasize the proper state materials should be in before being tossed into a bin. Olympia and Walla Walla, as well as Waste Management and Republic Services, encourage customers to download the Recycle Coach App, which provides users with municipal collection dates, types of collection services, what is/is not accepted for recycling, and educational information to promote more responsible recycling. Vancouver uses the Recycle Right App, similar to the Recycle Coach model.

The City of Marysville is launching a new program aimed at decreasing contamination levels in recycled materials at multi-family residential sites where cross contamination is commonly more of a problem. According to North County Outlook, Marysville with work with Waste Management to identify target areas and multi-family sites and then conduct door-to-door education on how to properly prepare and recycle materials.

Other local governments, such as Kirkland, have had success with curbside tagging campaigns especially when these are paired with education and outreach as to the types of items that can be recycled and the state in which these items should be in. Collection carts can be “tagged” at curbside by the sanitation worker if the wrong item has been put in the cart or if the item is contaminated. The Recycling Partnership's Anti-Contamination Kit can help other local governments develop a curbside tagging program.

Finally, some municipalities are considering how to focus on the next step in the process; encouraging residents to simply reduce the amount of garbage produced. And it is here that jurisdictions have been especially focused on local needs/resources. Spokane’s Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle webpage includes resources to help residents opt out junk mail and phone book delivery. Seattle offers links to food waste prevention tips and purveyors of salvaged building material, while Auburn offers a list of local resources that take hard-to-recycle items such as Styrofoam, used mattresses, and paint. In a nod to reuse and beautification, Yakima County’s Reduce and Reuse webpage offers downloadable craft projects that repurpose common recyclable materials like magazines.

Questions? Comments?

If you have thoughts about this blog post, please comment below or email me. If you have questions about this or other local government issues, please use our Ask MRSC form or call us at (206) 625-1300 or (800) 933-6772.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Leah LaCivita

About Leah LaCivita

Leah joined MRSC as a Communications Coordinator in the fall of 2016 and manages MRSC’s blog and webinar training program, in addition to developing website content.