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The Northwest’s recycling crisis is serious, but you can help

(Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Rick Kyper recycles conscientiously, as many of us try to do.

RELATED: How China’s ban on waste impacts Seattle recycling

“People are very much aware of what the city has asked us to do as far as recycling,” Kyper said outside his Beacon Hill home.

As a horticulturist, he has a lot of rinsed plant pots to drop in his curbside bin.

“I think I’m doing what we’re supposed to do,” Kyper said with a laugh.

Indeed, it can be tough to keep track of what goes in which bin.

People in King County are better at recycling than in most of the country, but we keep falling short of local goals, tossing just 54 percent of what could be recycled into blue bins.

Recology recycling trucks pick up the bins from the company’s service area and take them to a sorting facility in South Seattle. The company estimates 10 percent of what arrives in the facility can’t actually be recycled at all, which compounds the recycling crisis stemming from China stopping imports of mixed paper and plastic.

Workers are stationed along a conveyor belt as piles of solid waste roll by.

“They’re looking for anything that obviously doesn’t belong here or will damage the equipment,” General Manager Kevin Kelly explained during a tour, noting that single plastic bags especially cause problems by clogging machines.

Among the items in the facility during the tour were gloves, shredded paper, ribbon, clothes hangers, kitchen faucets and entire bicycles.

Machines do much of the sorting, but people are also all along the line for what can be a hazardous job. At one point during the tour, workers stopped the conveyor belt for a needle.

“We find a lot of hypodermic needles,” Kelly said. “What happens is we have to stop the line, safely collect the needle, and then we can start operating again.”

While the conveyor belt moves quickly, it’s slower than it used to be, and more people now work here.

That’s because companies like Recology are under increasing pressure to weed out contaminants from recycling.

“After all that, the technology, the machinery, the people, this is what we get,” Kelly said, pointing to a bale of recyclables headed for a processing plant.

The bales are far from perfect, with plastic pieces and packaging that don’t belong. Not long ago, Recology estimated the contamination level for what it bundles at its Seattle plant was 8-10 percent.

That’s now improved to 3 to 6 percent, but it’s still far short of the new .5 percent limit China set in 2018 in a decision that sent global recycling markets into crisis.

“A facility like this, and there are many around the country, can’t produce the standard that China is asking for,” Kelly said.

China was the top destination for shipping containers filled with recyclables leaving Puget Sound, but garbage buildup in China led the government to stop those imports. Now, Seattle-area recyclables go to India or Southeast Asia.

A regional task force report suggests things like restarting closed pulp mills so recyclables can be processed locally.

“There’s been a lot of interest in opening new mills here,” said Jeff Gaisford, Recyling and Environmental Services Manager for King County.

But that could be a long way off.

RELATED: Snohomish City Council passes plastic bag ban

Ideas in the state legislature include banning plastic straws and widening bag bans. There’s even a push to get product designers to use less plastic in the first place.

And because rules for what can be recycled vary from one King County city to the next, the task force suggests a single standard to avoid confusion.

“We know this region is committed to recycling because people understand it’s an investment in our future,” Gaisford said.

That investment is now costing people more as the China crisis drives up the price of processing recycling. In unincorporated King County, customers now pay temporary surcharges between 35 cents and 81 cents per month.

Tacoma is considering surcharges between $1.33 and $4, and might even dump curbside recycling altogether.

In Seattle, solid waste rates are already projected to rise an average of 3.4 percent annually through 2023.

The recycling system hinges not just on what we pay, but also on the choices we make. Gaisford says to make sure recyclables actually get recycled, we all need to pay closer attention to what we toss in the bins.

“What they do in their curbside bin really matters,” Gaisford said.

By knowing what can be recycled, and what can’t, Gaisford says we can avoid what he calls “wishful recycling.”

“Don’t engage in wishful recycling, because I think a lot of us have had that moment when we’re standing in front of the recycling bin and saying, ‘this is probably recyclable’ and throw it in,” he said.

The China crisis affects mixed paper and plastics, which is about 15 percent of our total recyclables.

That means for 85 percent, it’s business as usual, so officials don’t want anyone to give up on recycling.

They urge people to keep bagging plastic bags together, rather than tossing them in separately. All recyclables should be empty, clean and dry.

Written by Graham Johnson

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