Recycling the right way is a point of pride around here. “Obsessive Compulsive Recycler, you’re one of us,” local insurance company Pemco says in one of its cheeky Northwest Profiles.
But getting it right has become more difficult, after China stopped accepting most of our recyclable waste. With so much piling up, some worry if their careful efforts are ultimately keeping the items out of landfills.
Recycling is changing dramatically, but Seattle Public Utilities has not and will not send any recycling to landfills, says Becca Fong, the agency’s solid waste community outreach specialist.
“It costs more to landfill material than it does to recycle it,” Fong said. “So that is one thing that is definitely going to motivate a lot of cities and municipalities and processors as well — to find ways to get some money back for the recyclables. You get no money back if you’re landfilling something.”
Recycling also cuts back on the energy and resources that go into manufacturing new things. It’s just better for the environment. But, now perhaps more than ever, people have to help make it work. Consumers need to look at their habits and adjust how to handle recyclables.
So, Fong put on some gloves, rolled up her sleeves and sorted through the recycling at a local coffee shop with KNKX Public Radio. Here are the top 10 tips she shared:
Think “empty, clean and dry.” A small amount of contamination from water or mold can ruin an entire bushel. Food and soiled or wet paper should go into the compost.
If your recycling bin needs a liner, you’re doing it wrong. If recyclables are clean and dry, the bin doesn’t need protection. And it’s best for handlers to get all the items loose — not bundled together — for easier sorting. Place the loose items inside a curbside bin for collection.
Rinse, rinse, rinse. Fong says people often ask “how clean is clean?” A peanut butter jar is a great example. That sticky container needs a quick rinse or even a soak, to ensure nothing is left that could mold. “It doesn’t need to be run-through-your-dishwasher clean, but most of the peanut butter needs to be out of there,” Fong said. If mold develops, it can grow and spread to other items while in transport — ruining much more than just that jar. Similarly, soak cat food cans or comparable items, quickly swishing out any residual matter; let it dry before mixing with other recyclables.
On the go? Wipe it out. At the coffee shop, Fong found a small yogurt container with a foil top partially attached. Whoever recycled it pushed the top down to cover a small amount of uneaten yogurt. While it was likely well intended, Fong says that won’t work. The right way to recycle it: pull off the top, wipe out the remnants with a paper napkin and recycle the container. The soiled napkin can go into compost. If rinsing isn’t an option, wiping an item clean is the next best thing.
Toss smaller items. Small items such as the yogurt top aren’t practical to recycle. Those include tiny slips of paper, for example. In Fong’s example, the yogurt foil also was soiled and could contaminate other items.
Don’t toss tiny plastic caps — secure them. Loose lids and caps smaller than 3 inches in diameter can fall through the cracks of recycling machinery and cause problems. If they’re loose, Fong says, you need to put them in the trash. But if you can secure caps back onto plastic milk or shampoo bottles, for example, recycle them.
Bundle and return single-use plastic bags. The Legislature didn’t pass the proposed statewide ban on thin, disposable plastic bags. One major argument in favor of the failed legislation: the bags get caught in the gears of recycling machinery. They also end up in waterways and harm marine wildlife. This is why many purists say it’s best to bundle up the bags and return them to stores, which have designated recycling bins for thin, plastic films. If you can’t swing the extra trip, bundle them into one, securely tied bag in your recycling. Soiled bags should be tied in a knot and put in the trash.
When in doubt, check it out. If you’re not sure whether something can be recycled, look it up. Check websites for local utilities. SPU offers a search tool called “Where does it go” with detailed information on most items.
And don’t be afraid to throw it out. If you researched an item and you’re still not sure, trashing it is the default. Don’t engage in “aspirational recycling” or wishful thinking, Fong says. Don’t recycle something because you think it should be recyclable. Many items actually belong in the trash.
Cut down on single-use plastics. Whenever possible, skip plastic snack bags, utensils and cups. It’s one habit Fong wishes more people would kick. Ziploc or other plastic food bags and plastic utensils go in the garbage. Plastic cups are often unnecessary. Look for reusable or compostable alternatives.
While consumers have struggled to keep up with shifting expectations for recycling best practices, some utilities have struggled with changing costs. Seattle, for example, isn’t raising rates. But it’s suffered huge losses due to the changing market: about $3 million in revenue.
Still, SPU decided against passing that cost along to its ratepayers.
“A separate charge for recycling service was discussed briefly, but we decided not to move forward on it,” Fong said. “The cost of the recycling program is built into the other service rates, and the rates are currently and will in the future be designed to incorporate the cost of the recycling program.”
In the South Sound, Tacoma Public Utilities is debating how to absorb the rising costs. After public outreach, a proposal to hike fees and end curbside glass recycling has risen to the top. The Tacoma City Council has yet to approve the proposal. Everett also faces higher utility bills.
Whatcom County relies on customers to separate paper, plastics, metals and glass — resulting in minimal impact from the changes in China.