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Spokane recycling more since new center opened

Thu., Dec. 26, 2013, midnight

On the pre-sort line, workers search for and pull nonrecyclable material from the stream at Waste Management’s SMaRT Center on the West Plains on Friday. The plant processes more than 6,000 tons of recyclables from around the region a month. (Colin Mulvany)
On the pre-sort line, workers search for and pull nonrecyclable material from the stream at Waste Management’s SMaRT Center on the West Plains on Friday. The plant processes more than 6,000 tons of recyclables from around the region a month. (Colin Mulvany)

As Spokane residents hauled their new blue carts to the curbside over the past year, they recycled more materials than ever before.

In the year since Spokane switched to a single-stream recycling system in October 2012, the amount of materials the city has sent to the new West Plains recycling facility jumped to 18,052 tons, a 7,651-ton increase over the year before the plant opened, said Scott Windsor, director of the city of Spokane’s Solid Waste Department.

Participation is also up, Windsor added. On any given week, 70 percent of Spokane residents place their carts on the curb for pickup, he said. Before the city spent $3.4 million on the new bins, only half of the residents recycled in a given week.

“We’ve made it as easy as possible to recycle materials as it is to throw them away,” he said.

Waste Management processes those materials at the $22 million Spokane Materials and Recycling Technology – or SMaRT – Center. The single-stream system means the materials remain lumped together until they arrive at the SMaRT Center. Truck drivers no longer have to sort recyclables into separate bins.

The trucks dump their loads in the warehouse, and the materials are loaded onto a conveyor belt that zigzags throughout the facility while 23 workers pull out nonrecyclable items. They also sort the materials by tossing them down their respective chutes. Rotating discs automatically separate much of the material, ensuring that flat paper heads to a different destination than 3-D items.

Once separated, the materials are packed into bundles and sent to their next destination – be it Inland Empire Paper, Cascade Steel or a facility for distribution to markets overseas. Inland Empire Paper is owned by Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.

But the streamlined system isn’t flawless. Plastic bags frequently get trapped, and workers sometimes have to halt operations to prevent a fire from starting, said Steven Gimpel, operations specialist for the SMaRT Center.

“Usually there’s 15 to 30 minutes of downtime every day caused by things wrapping in a screen or getting caught in the chutes,” he said.

For a materials recovery facility like the SMaRT Center to be economically viable, it needs to draw from an area that serves at least 1 million people, Windsor said. That meant the facility needed to seek materials outside the Spokane area.

The center has become a regional hub for recycling, processing nearly 76,000 tons of material over the past year. Trucks from as far away as Moses Lake, Boise and Edmonton, Alberta, transport materials to the facility in Spokane.

By last summer, the facility was processing so many materials that it added a second shift, Gimpel said. It now operates 20 hours most weekdays.

Although Spokane has earned $30,513 in net income from Waste Management since the facility opened, the city ends up in the red some months due to the volatility of the world recycling market, Windsor said. The city pays a per-ton processing fee to Waste Management but can make money when the company sells the recyclables it sorts.

A Chinese initiative to beef up standards for importing recycled material sent shockwaves throughout the world’s recycling facilities this year. With the launch of Operation Green Fence early this year, China began sending contaminated shipments with wet, rotten or smelly recyclable materials back to their home countries.

“It hurts our industry overall, but it moves the world forward,” Gimpel said.

About 75 percent of the SMaRT Center’s plastics are meant for markets in China, where recyclers repurpose the material into new goods. But China has stopped accepting plastics No. 3 through 7, which include common mixed plastics like yogurt containers and pill bottles, according to Waste Management.

Those items processed at the SMaRT Center now sit in storage at a facility near Portland, Gimpel said. “I’m just waiting for an entrepreneur to come into America and start doing it here,” he said.

Some of the mixed plastics are turned into crude oil, but people in the recycling industry say the future of those items is in limbo until they can determine alternate markets. Robin Freedman, a spokesperson for Waste Management’s Pacific Northwest operations, said the company has started exporting some of the plastic materials to Malaysia.

Operation Green Fence has caused the value of those materials to plummet. Although Spokane collected money from Waste Management during its first few months of operation, the drop in value has forced the city to pay the company to process its material during the latter part of 2013, Windsor said.

But he believes the market is on the rebound. For November, the city had to pay only $2 per ton rather than the $6 per ton price tag Windsor saw earlier this year. The city offsets those costs by sending less trash to its incinerator, he said.

Over the past year, city trucks have dropped off 8,000 fewer tons of garbage at the Waste-to-Energy Plant than the year before the SMaRT Center opened, he said. By recycling more, 6,000 residents have switched to smaller garbage bins, saving them $12 a month, Windsor said.

“I think it’s been a great decision,” he said. “I don’t know of many things that the city’s done that has been so universally appreciated.”

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