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Environment

Despite very high recycling rates, King County officials urge residents to do more to ‘recycle right’

Two workers in bright yellow tops and hard hats sort through a conveyor of cardboard, plastic and more.
Bellamy Pailthorp
/
KNKX
Workers sort trash from recycling on a conveyor belt at the Recology facility in south Seattle.

Recycling rates in King County are some of the highest in the nation. The statewide ban on single-use plastic bags that took effect Oct. 1 is also improving efforts to reduce waste and recover valuable resources.

But officials here say there’s still a lot of room for improvement. In honor of America Recycles Day on Monday, recycling company Recology provided KNKX with a tour of its newest materials recovery facility in the region. Located in south Seattle, the $7 million asset was built and began operating in 2014.

Inside the warehouse-like structure, a maze of green and yellow metal staircases and scaffolding leads up to whirring conveyor belts overhead.  

Every day, batches of all the items people put in their blue bins arrive here and are transformed into tidy bales of clean commodities. High-tech sorting machines use infrared cameras, air jets and magnets to separate the recyclables.

But first, dozens of workers in protective gear pull a whole lot of thin plastics and other garbage from the piles.

Recology’s government and community relations manager, Quinn Apuzzo, says trash makes up around 10 percent of what arrives at this plant.

"So, things like garden hoses, Christmas lights, dirty diapers. None of those items are recyclable, and some are obviously not recyclable. But some are also items that people just get confused about — or they really, really wish they could recycle," she said. "They put them in their blue bin, in the hope that someone can figure out how to recycle them down the line. And unfortunately, that's just not how the system works.”

A woman in a bright yellow jacket and orange reflective vest stands in front bales of recycled materials in a warehouse.
Bellamy Pailthorp
Quinn Apuzzo stands on a walkway above bales of recycled materials at the Recology facility in south Seattle.

She says another common aspirational category is textiles. Like thin plastics, they’re not just out of place here; they get tangled on the line and damage the equipment.

“At least once a day, we have to shut down the entire machine, have someone get into a safety suit to climb into the machine and manually cut out the plastic bags and the other ‘tang-burglars’ that will jam up this equipment,” Apuzzo said. 

She says many people don’t realize that those items do the same kind of damage as the thin plastic bags that Washington state recently banned. That’s why it’s important to check the lists of accepted recycled materials in your community — and when in doubt about an item, throw it out.

A good example of an item that is not recyclable and should never go in the blue bin is alkaline batteries. Apuzzo says they can start fires that create real hazards for collectors, drivers and sorters — along with obviously ruining recyclables they’re near. Smaller plastic items should be bundled and taken to specialty collectors or trashed. Plastic films and thin bags also need to be bundled and are taken back by most grocery chains, which send them in for recycling into materials such as plastic decking and floor boards.

By far the biggest problem, though, is people throwing otherwise good recyclables like plastic tubs, bottles or cardboard into the bin without checking to make sure they’re empty, clean and dry.

When recycled right, plastics are an increasingly valuable commodity. But they often come in dirty. And that can contaminate huge amounts of the most abundant recyclables – paper and cardboard, which constitute about 80 percent of the materials recycled at this facility in south Seattle.

Food and moisture can cause mold that turns those valuable paper fibers into trash. Even a little bit of leftovers sealed inside can lead to damage when that container gets crushed on the line, says Jeff Gaisford, King County’s recycling and environmental services manager.

Take the example of a peanut butter jar or container of yogurt or hummus.

“Just soak it with some water. (Then give it a) quick rinse,” Gaisford says. “You don't need to put it in the dishwasher. It just needs to be clean and dry — but not an inch of peanut butter in there.”

He says that’s especially important with the increase in volume that always comes over the holidays.

America Recycles Day was created in 1994 in Texas as six-week campaign to remind people about best practices in this clean, green industry and boost recycling before the holidays. It was endorsed three years later by the EPA.

Gaisford says relative to other places, King County does extremely well, with recycling rates nearly double that of the rest of the country. So getting more people to ‘recycle right’ is not the only goal. He says too much of the waste that people put in their trash still isn’t garbage.

“Seventy percent of what's going to the landfill today could be recycled,” he says.

That means there’s still quite a bit of work to do, if we want to maximize our resources – all of which helps create a more efficient and climate-friendly, resilient society.

He wants residents to remember the messages that officials put out nationally on Monday, all year long.

“I like to say every day is Recycle Day in King County,” Gaisford said.