Before last summer, when you dropped a yogurt cup into your recycling bin, there’s a good chance that cup was sent to China to be recycled and turned into something new.
The United States exports about a third of its recycling, and about half of that goes to China. But last summer, frustrated by the shipments of unwashed, dirty plastics, what they called “foreign waste” and garbage that can’t actually be recycled, China put its foot down. They filed with the World Trade Organization, banning 24 materials from being shipped into the country, which meant a lot of American municipalities had to scramble to find places to send certain plastics and paper. Some stopped recycling completely.
RELATED: Ron asks if NW recycles anymore
I talked about this story on Ring My Belle last year, but last Wednesday I learned that KIRO talk host Ron Upshaw took the story to heart. He immediately stopped recycling — full stop.
“Here’s where I am at right now,” Upshaw said during Wednesday’s edition of Ring My Belle. “I don’t sort my garbage at home. Everything’s going into one garbage bag, the entire garbage bag is going into the dumpster. Are they recycling this stuff? I don’t think they are.”
Worried that our listeners would follow in Upshaw’s misguided footsteps, I made a couple calls to get some answers.
“Recycling is alive and well,” said Becca Fong, who does communications and Solid Waste Outreach at Seattle Public Utilities.
When the city could no longer send certain materials to China, they simply started sending them elsewhere.
“One thing that’s interesting about recycling is that it’s a commodity, it’s a market, and those things change all the time,” Fong said. “So even though China is not taking it, there are other markets that are taking it. We have other vendors. India takes it. Vietnam is taking it. Keep recycling. In the City of Seattle alone we recycle, which includes composting as well, over 58 percent of what we throw away. Which is awesome! So we don’t want people to stop recycling. Not at all.”
Kevin Kelly is general manager at Recology, a company that contracts with King County to pick up and ship off garbage, compostables, and recycling. They pick up recycling in Bothell, Burien, Shoreline, Carnation, Des Moines, SeaTac, Issaquah, and Maple Valley.
Kelly confirms those cities are also still recycling.
“Our company was using China,” Kelly said. “Even prior to this we had been using other markets, like in southeast Asia, but we have found other markets to send our material to. These are places where they don’t have the type of natural resources we do and they need this type of material to help feed their mills so they can produce products like packaging.”
Learn to recycle properly
Both Fong and Kelly say this is a teaching moment to get people to recycle properly.
“Recycled materials should be empty, clean and dry before it goes into your blue bin,” Kelly said.
But they aren’t always clean, which is why China cut us off.
There are places in Oregon that did stop recycle programs when China instituted the ban. But why didn’t they simply find new vendors?
“I don’t know,” Fong said. “I mean, it’s actually more expensive to landfill things than it is to recycle them. So I’m kind of boggled as to why folks have made that decision.”
So keep recycling and let this be a lesson to think twice before you take advice from Ron Upshaw.