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News >  WA Government

New recycling ‘think tank’ aims to improve Washington’s markets, better inform residents

Jan. 27, 2019 Updated Sat., Feb. 2, 2019 at 5:08 p.m.

One bale of unprocessed recyclables weighs three-quarters of a ton. Pictured here is one bale in an anonymous processing facility on July 12, 2018. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
One bale of unprocessed recyclables weighs three-quarters of a ton. Pictured here is one bale in an anonymous processing facility on July 12, 2018. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

It’s been more than a year since China stopped accepting most recycling from the U.S., leading to a stockpile of paper, metal, glass and plastic that states like Washington have to spend more money cleaning up – or throwing away.

And since then, the market for buying metal, paper, plastic and glass to recycle them remains poor.

But now, the Washington Department of Ecology is trying to get the industry on its legs again with a proposed bill that aims to fix the problems by making local governments develop a recycling plan that the Department of Ecology must approve and creating a new “Recycling Development Center” that researches, expand markets and gives grants to local governments for recycling programs.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Jared Mead, D-Mill Creek, will be considered by the House Environment and Energy Committee this week.

“There’s overwhelming consensus among my constituents: It’s too difficult to know anymore what’s recyclable and what’s trash,” Mead wrote in an email to The Spokesman-Review. “That’s bad for our households, worse for our recycling system and devastating for our environment.”

Gov. Jay Inlsee set aside $6 million of the state budget to look at recycling issues, and if passed, the bill would annually take $1.9 million of that.

Local government plans

Local governments would be required to create a plan to minimize contamination in recycling and as well as to inform residents what goes into the recycling and what stays out.

Most already do, said Paul Jewell, policy directory for the Washington State Association of Counties, a group that is negotiating with the Department of Ecology on easing the burden for smaller governments.

“This bill requires that solid waste plans be updated with outreach plan,” he said. “Many of our programs are already doing them. This is just an additional cost and additional time for a process that was already completed.”

But if local agencies aren’t able to spend the resources to make the plans themselves, they could adopt a statewide recycling plan that the bill will create, said Laurie Davies, environmental program manager for the Washington Department of Ecology.

Leanne Hawley, Solid Waste Coordinator for Ferry County, runs a three-person recycling operation for the county. A few years ago, Ferry County started doing its recycling instead of giving it away to a private company. Hawley and her two coworkers take turns sorting the single-stream recycling by hand.

Hawley already has a plan to inform and label what is considered a contaminate, but she’s unsure what the Department of Ecology would require to be met for approval, or what the state outreach plan would look like if she had to adopt it – the state plan would be created at a later date if the bill is passed.

She’s not sure sure how the bill would affect her new operation, but any extra work will hold back the new program, which recycled 13.1 tons last year, she said.

“As far as dedicating time to revamp all that stuff, that would take a lot,” Hawley said.

Davies said she doesn’t think the bill will affect smaller communities because their lists of accepted recycled materials are small and there are not markets to tap into for more obscure materials, unlike larger communities like Seattle.

“It’s going to be more of a workload for bigger counties,” Davies said.

Governments don’t have to disclose what they consider contaminates, so when residents recycle garbage, the private collections companies bear the burden of separating trash out of the recycling. Residents are unclear what is and isn’t recycling – plaguing the recycling markets with dirty recyclables.

“The plan will require local governments to identify what they consider to be contaminates in the recycling,” Davies said. “That will allow them to better inform residents.”

New Recycling Development Center

The Recycling Development Center would be a catch-all for many issues in the market. It would create the statewide outreach plan for better informing people on how to recycle. It would create a policy board of public and private stakeholders in the recycling industry to evaluate, analyze and make recommendations on policies to benefit the postrecycled materials market within state borders.

The center would work with the Washington Department of Commerce, which will allow resources to be shared, said Alli Kingfisher, Department of Ecology statewide recycling coordinator.

“There’s been a question of what’s happening to our materials,” Kingfisher said. “This is a way of developing our own domestic infrastructure and keeping these things in our own border.”

The policy board, for example, would help with finding a way for recycled milk cartons to be best used after they’ve been recycled. Milk cartons are a troublesome material because paper and plastic are laced together. Separating the materials is costly and inefficient, and it’s not clear how to best do it.

“What are the possibilities to use materials in cartons or other marginal recyclable materials?” she said.

Twenty percent of the bill’s $1.9 million would allow the center to also provide grant funding. It would help local governments with funding waste reduction and litter control programs. Grants up to $60,000 would be given, according to the bill.

“We have an incredible opportunity to make more of our waste recyclable while simplifying the patchwork of recycling systems across the state,” Mead wrote. “This bill takes a major step toward getting us there.”

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