Each day, more than 250 tons of waste whirs along conveyor belts at Waste Management’s recycling center on the West Plains.
That amounts to a total of roughly 100,000 tons of recycled material per year, about twice the weight of the cruise ship Titanic. A detailed account of how much of that material is plastic, carboard, paper, glass and other categories wasn’t available, but a statewide survey produced by the Department of Ecology over the past two years, which included Spokane County collection trucks, found that most recyclable material put out curbside is paper, at roughly 20 percent, followed by plastic, then metal, and finally glass, at 3.2 percent.
Most of the material sold by the Spokane facility is repurposed by a company in Wenatchee that makes cartons for picked apples. Some of it will go to a paper mill and corrugated packaging specialist in Longview.
The glass, shattered into shards and housed in a shed at the back of the facility, is headed for a nearby landfill.
“Glass is a problem material, all over the country,” said Matt Stern, Waste Management’s director of recycling operations in the Northwest.
Spokane County switched to a single-stream recycling system in 2012, the same year Waste Management opened its $18 million facility right next door to the Waste-to-Energy Plant. All recycling materials collected at the curb wind up in the same pile, which climbs a three-story-tall conveyor belt inside the recycling center to be sorted by workers and machines on labyrinthine paths into separate bales for sale.
The company has buyers for all of its other materials besides glass, said Douglas Vermillion, Waste Management’s district manager.
“We’re really a manufacturing facility,” Vermillion said.
Trucking glass is expensive, and bottling plants on the West Coast already are inundated with glass, officials said. So Waste Management began using the crushed glass, intermingled with plastic bottle caps and other debris, in lieu of soil, rock and other materials at the Graham Road landfill, a 300-acre construction waste site in Medical Lake, to cover garbage and as a base layer for road construction.
“This glass material is a substitute for another resource. If we didn’t use glass, we’d mine the rock from a quarry,” Stern said.
But the Department of Ecology has said it will no longer cover the costs of disposing of the glass in that way.
“At the end of the day, it just gets left in there with all the garbage,” said Wayne Krafft, manager of the Ecology Department’s recycling program in Eastern Washington. “Our position is that anything that ends up in a landfill is not recycling.”
The Ecology Department awards grants to local governments on a two-year cycle to coincide with the state’s budget process. In the most recent biennium, Spokane County received $532,964 for recycling efforts based on its population, money that department officials say can no longer be used to cover the costs of glass disposal efforts for both curbside collection in the county and glass dropped off at the county’s two transfer stations, which also feed into the Waste Management center.
Local officials, including Spokane City Councilman Mike Fagan, hope that a compromise can be reached with the department to allow the use, which is based on years of public education that glass should be recycled into new products, to preserve energy and diminish greenhouse gas emissions.
“We have been pounding it in our schoolchildren’s heads that glass is a part of recycling, that everybody needs to engage in it,” Fagan said.
Ken Gimpel, assistant director for the city’s Public Works department and former longtime Waste Management employee, said the change in policy shouldn’t affect grant funding levels for other services because money is doled out by population. But both he and Stern said the issue came down to a philosophical difference between Ecology officials and those contractually charged with disposing of the city’s recyclable glass.
“That’s still, for our region, the only and best option,” said Gimpel, referring to the glass use at the Graham Road landfill. “Until we get some type of manufacturing business that can use the glass.”
In past years, some of the city’s collected glass was sold to a fiberglass company in Canada, which stopped buying during the recession, Gimpel said. Some remaining glass, collected before the city switched to a single-stream system, is shipped to a recycler on the West Side that is “inundated with a glut” of glass from other areas of the Northwest, Gimpel said.
The city also used processed recycled glass for some road projects, including the repaving of Market Street in Hillyard. But without established markets for other uses, processing glass for use in those limited scenarios makes little sense, Gimpel said.
Inside the bustling West Plains warehouse, sorters grab plastic grocery bags and toss them into a vacuum chute. Cog-like devices called “stars” shoot paperlike materials onto one conveyer belt, with heavier objects such as aluminum cans and plastic jugs sifting through to another. A million-dollar piece of equipment, called a TiTech, shoots light through materials and uses pneumatic shots of air to separate clear plastics from their colored counterparts.
All of this results in bales, weighing up to half a ton, of sorted materials, most of which will be trucked to customers in the United States and Canada. It takes about 15 minutes for waste to go from the unsorted single-stream bin to a pile that will be baled for sale.
This recycled material makes up more than half of the solid waste thrown away by Spokane County residents, including glass. Based on the Ecology Department’s ruling that the county’s method of disposal can’t be considered recycling, however, that number will likely plummet to less than 40 percent, officials said.
Ending glass recycling is likely not an easy fix, either. The Waste-to-Energy Plant incinerates garbage at a specific temperature, which is not hot enough to melt the glass. If residents put glass in their garbage bin, county waste collectors are still stuck dealing with it after incineration.
It’s also unlikely customers would change their long-standing behavior, Stern said.
“No one ever does that,” he said. “I’ve been doing this about 27 years, and I know of a couple places around the country that have tried to do that.
“You can tell people not to put it in, but if that’s where they’ve been doing it, they’re always going to do it.”
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