As Spokane County Waste Manager Deb Geiger and an employee picked through a small bin of plastic bottles, which would normally be recyclable, she removed the cap from one and poured out a generous serving of chocolate milk.
“I’m pretty sure this isn’t going to go anywhere but the trash,” Geiger said.
That bin, one of many dropped off by customers at the Spokane Valley Transfer and Recycling Station, was full of plastics that could be recycled, if the lids were removed and the liquids were rinsed out.
Spokane County has restricted what recycling it accepts at transfer stations, and is now requiring people who drop off their recycling to sort it. Those changes are similar to others that governments and recycling centers around the nation have implemented as China and other East Asian countries stopped buying American and European recyclables.
In addition to changes at drop-off locations, Spokane County and other local governments and businesses also are asking their customers to remember the basics, such as cleaning the recyclables and throwing away anything not on the official recycling list. Otherwise, the material will end up in a landfill or contaminate other items that could have been recycled.
According to a report in the Bureau of International Recycling, a nonprofit that compiles reports for the industry, East Asian countries used to accept 60% of all plastic scraps, but in the past several years, China – which accepted the bulk of recyclables – Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia restricted permits for recycling and imports. That dramatically reduced the demand for materials that they would have recycled.
That means the vendors that still are willing to buy recyclables only want high-quality materials.
Those international changes have turned the recycling industry upside down, said Marc Rickey, Sunshine Disposal & Recycling’s business account manager. Sunshine is the company that contracts with the city of Spokane Valley to pick up residents’ recycling and operates a transfer station that also requires people who drop off recycling to sort it, a requirement that has been in place since 2015.
In addition to cardboard, paper and cans, Rickey anticipates that eventually only bottle-shaped plastics will be accepted by most recyclers because of the massive supply of plastic, and the limited number of companies that still are accepting all types of it.
“There’s so much material people think is recyclable and want it to be recyclable, but at the end of the day if there’s no market for the material, there’s no value,” he said.
Like most companies and governments in the area, Sunshine Disposal takes its single-streamed recycling materials to the Spokane Materials and Recycling Technology (SMaRT) Center, which sorts the materials. Jackie Lang, spokeswoman for the center, said since China stopped accepting recycling, the center has slowed down its machine and hired more workers to increase the quality of the recycling going out.
They’ve also tried to educate the public about plastic bags, which can’t be recycled by the plant. Plastic bags become tangled in the machinery, and an employee has to shut down production to manually cut it out of the equipment every time one is mixed in with recycling.
Lang said the center also has had conversations with local governments about what they’re able to find a market for and has refined the list of what recyclables they accept accordingly. Most recycling centers in Eastern Washington no longer accept plastic tubs, such as yogurt containers, plastic Solo cups, frozen food cups, or glass because there is no longer anywhere to sell that type of recycling.
Marlene Feist, spokeswoman for the city of Spokane, said the city planned to have conversations over the next year about limiting items that are difficult to recycle, such as some plastics and glass. Right now, they are working to educate the public about what is recyclable, and that residents should clean items before they go into the bin. Feist said about 12% of what goes into an average recycle bin is garbage.
“I think people do a lot of wish-cycling,” she said.
Geiger recommends people only recycle what is on approved county recycling lists instead of going off of a recycling symbol, or recycling something that was marketed as recyclable by the company it was purchased from. That includes plastic Starbucks lids, which are not accepted. The drop-off locations are now only accepting plastic No. 1 and No. 2, cardboard, paper bags, newspapers and other paper, tin cans, aluminum cans and scrap metals and glass.
Curbside pick up for Spokane and Spokane County is mostly the same items, but residents can check with whichever company hauls their recyclables, and both the city and the county have a list of accepted materials on their website.
Geiger said Spokane County has sought out local vendors and mills to buy their recycling and found some success, but glass still is a problem. Currently, the glass that is dropped off is stored in a trailer. She said the county is looking into a few pilot programs, or finding a way to use it in construction.
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