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Reinventing recycling as “a resource that we offer up”

It’s been 42 years since my husband and I fell in love while starting the first recycling center in the small town of Colville. People liked to do their part and brought us their stuff — from native born “rednecks” or the back to the land “hippies” who recently moved to the area. Finding and keeping markets was difficult way back then.

Jump ahead to 2019. Many more people are doing their part to recycle and many cities in our state provide door-to-door pickup. But the markets are still not stable or sustainable and this is disappointing. The US has been caught with its pants down and now cities and states are scrambling to make things right after putting all their eggs (recyclables) in one basket (empty cargo ship container). It is distressing that after all these years recycling still has not become a closed loop. There is hope, although it may take some time.

No more depending on China

Even though I started a recycling center, like many others I missed the memo that China had been taking our recyclables – huge amounts of them. For this article, I contacted Ron Jones, the Senior Planner in Public Works, Waste ReSources for the City of Olympia who shared a wealth of information with me. Ron relayed that “Before January 1, 2018, China was the world’s largest consumer of recyclables, roughly half of what the world produced. The Pacific Northwest sent a large portion of its recyclables to China.”

All that changed when China decided to clean up its own mess. Decades of unregulated recycling lead to huge amounts of plastic floating from rivers to oceans. The US and other countries contributed by sending unclean and contaminated materials.

Wait, recycling is still alive

Although US recyclables are no longer sent to China, Ron says recycling is not dead. The city has been able to find purchasers for our recycling but we are getting much less money for them. Our utility bills rose by 5.5% in 2019 partly to cover the reduction. Nothing is going to landfills. Part of the reason is because Olympia does not recycle a large number of items.

…every two hours certain machines have to be stopped because their huge metal parts are balled up with plastic bags.

Where our recyclables end up changes depending on where the city finds the best price. “For example,” Ron said, “mixed paper might be sent to a local Pacific Northwest mill, to the Midwest, or overseas to Indonesia or another country.”

The gospel of “empty, clean and dry”

Ron emphasized a number of times that the community should keep recycling. We should recycle what is on the “acceptable items” list and make sure everything is empty, clean, and dry. This goes for each community. It’s most important to follow your hauler’s acceptable list — not one from a neighboring community or one you see on TV.

Ron also asked me to imagine the potential for rodents and unpleasant odors in a facility where large amounts of recyclables are handled, bundled, or live even for a short time. As a result I am now gingerly cleaning my recyclables and letting them air dry. I am reframing them as a resource that we ‘offer up’. The cleaner and less contaminated they are, the better we do our part in closing the loop so they can be made into something else.

The secret is in the shape

For plastics, Ron says to focus on container shape and not the number printed on the bottom. Olympia accepts bottles and jugs with a neck smaller than the base, as well as non-clear dairy tubs, buckets without their handles, and rigid black flower pots. Olympia also accepts glass, mixed clean paper (not shredded), aluminum cans, milk cartons, and aseptic (broth, almond milk) containers. No plastic bags—not even to wrap up the actual recyclable items.

I had to laugh when Ron encouraged people not to ‘Wishcycle’. I knew automatically what he meant, and I know my family is guilty of it. I have put prescription bottles or tofu containers into the bin, thinking “ They must be recyclable, because… I want everything to be recyclable!” And they’re plastic!

Not a job for the faint of heart

After the city’s recycling trucks collect our stuff every two weeks, where does it go? It is loaded onto 55-foot trailers and driven north to Frederickson to Pioneer Recycling Services. There it’s unloaded to be sorted in the huge facility that does not offer tours because there is a high safety risk (I viewed videos of the place instead). According to Ron, “The recyclables are sorted with human labor, mechanical separation, optical sorters, magnets, eddy currents and air separators, to name a few. From there the items are sent to end-users to make new products.”

The most impressive video showed how every two hours certain machines have to be stopped because their huge metal parts are totally balled up with plastic bags. Workers risk injury crawling into otherworldly large metal rollers to pull out the plastic. Think: when your vacuum rollers get something all wrapped around them.

Some positive developments

Will business and government do their part? One positive is that China still takes some of our recycled resources as processed recycled material (for example paper roll stock instead of the raw mixed material). This could encourage the building of more mills to take more recyclables. This is a new development, but it is happening.

Meanwhile, Olympia remains active in the Washington State Recycling Association and engaged with their recycling processor and industry trends.

Another positive development is passage of HB 1543, the Sustainable Recycling bill, earlier this year. This new law directs the Department of Ecology to create a recycling development center. Its duty is to incentivize and assist in increasing recycling, domestic processing and markets through research, grants, and other means.

The other piece of helpful legislation passed by the legislators was SB 5397 Plastic Packaging. The bill provided for producers of plastic packaging to work on responsible management of their products from design through the end of life. Although British Columbia and Europe have similar laws, our state is the first to press the plastics packaging industry in this way. The law calls for 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging in all goods by 2025. Plastic packaging must contain at least 20% post-consumer recycled content, as well. The bill should increase recycling of plastics.

There could be more rate increases

I encourage readers to follow recycling issues in Olympia. Because the markets are weak, there will be a tendency for jurisdictions to drop items from the list of accepted recyclables. Get involved—attend the Olympia city council study meeting on recycling in mid-September. On Sept 2 there is a Utility Advisory Committee meeting that may discuss future price increases. Go to City of Olympia – Garbage and Recycling for the latest updates.

Robin Ivey-Black is an Olympia writer, artist and community builder.

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