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Oct. 20, 2021

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Clark Asks: Are you recycling the right way in Clark County?

20 to 30 percent of items put in recycling bins in Clark County are not recyclable, end up in landfills

By , Columbian staff writer
Published:
10 Photos
Line sorters comb through plastics and paper moving along a conveyor belt at Waste Connections Washington-Clark County material recycling facility on Northwest Lower River Road. The site processes tens of thousands of tons of recyclable materials every year, mostly from Clark County.
Line sorters comb through plastics and paper moving along a conveyor belt at Waste Connections Washington-Clark County material recycling facility on Northwest Lower River Road. The site processes tens of thousands of tons of recyclable materials every year, mostly from Clark County. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

“Don’t forget the recycling,” is a phrase most Clark County residents say to themselves once a week or every other week on our way out the door.

Not only did a number of Columbian readers remember to take it out, they kept thinking about it — so much so they asked the Columbian’s Clark Asks section, “What happens to the material in our recycling bins after they are picked up?”

The answer, like recycling itself, is complicated.

After the Waste Connections Washington-Clark County recycling truck swings through your neighborhood, it drops it off at the materials recycling facility on Northwest Lower River Road near the Port of Vancouver.

The MRF (pronounced by local recycling officials as “merf”) is a lofty metal building where everything you put in your blue bins is dumped into a giant pile, sorted, bundled and sold to processing mills — or sent to the landfill.

“All of Clark County material comes here; so does a little from Portland and other places in Oregon, as well,” Waste Connections District Manager Derek Ranta said during a recent visit out to the facility.

The site used to process between 600 and 900 tons of recycling material per day, or right around 90,000 tons per year; but a tightening recyclables resale market has demanded higher purity levels in the bulk bales.

In order to meet the new standard, Waste Connections has had to slow down by half.

“If you’ve got a $5 million recycling machine you can spread (costs) across 90,000 tons a year, but then you cut that in half and your cost of production doubles,” Ranta said. “Our costs to produce this clean material have doubled in the last six months.”

Ranta said Clark County residents should expect to start paying a few dollars more per month for sometime in the not-too-distant future.

“We’re working with the county to get something passed through,” he said. “That’s the way it works contractually. We can’t go out and just charge more. We’ve got to go out and work with the local governments.”

Heavy equipment feeds the pile into a giant hopper, where it’s then run through a series of zigzagging conveyer belts, filtering screens, compressed air nozzles, magnets, and past a crew a people who work around the clock to sort it by hand. Cardboard, clear and colored plastic, and metal cans are all sorted, separated and baled, then shipped off to customers who then turn it into something else.

Last year, China sent shock waves through the American recycling industry after the government tightened bulk recyclable import quality standards beginning in 2018. Prior to those changes, China was the United States’ largest market.

According to the Washington Department of Ecology, “In 2016, the U.S. exported $5.6 billion in scrap commodities to China. This makes recyclable materials the sixth-largest U.S. export to China.”

But since those changes have taken place, domestic recyclers have struggled to meet the standard and they’ve been forced to look for other markets.

“We got ours to 99.5 clean and (China) wouldn’t buy it,” Ranta said about the paper Waste Connections processes in Clark County. “The good news is, when we cleaned it up, it opened domestic markets.”

Today, most of the recyclables handled locally stay within the United States. Paper goes to a pulping mill in Longview. Cardboard goes to a mill in Toledo. Plastics go to Canada and around the Northwest. Aluminum goes to St. Louis, Mo. Still, some material is exported to nations in Southeast Asia.

“The question is how sustainable is that, because there is an overproduction of material domestically,” Ranta said. “There’s a still another correction coming.”

‘Wishful recyclers’

Between 20 and 30 percent of the material people put in the recycling bin isn’t recyclable and winds up going to the landfill anyway. Those contaminants, as recycling officials call them, lower the quality of the bales Waste Connection is trying to sell, can plug up the sorting machines and generally drive up costs of handling recyclables in general, which can be passed on to consumers.

“We have a lot of wishful recyclers,” said Josy Wright, a waste reduction specialists with Waste Connections. “They don’t think it should go into the garbage, but they want it to be recovered, so they put it in the cart.”

That wishful recycling — intentional or not — happens a lot, said Travis Dutton, Solid Waste program manager for Clark County Public Health. Dutton said when a study looked into Clark County’s residential recycling bins, only a third of them were free of contaminants. The rest contained recyclables that were soiled and therefore useless, or materials that weren’t recyclable to begin with.

A lot of things you probably think are recyclable aren’t. Even if the product has the recycling logo, that doesn’t mean it can be recycled locally.

For example: Cardboard pizza boxes, if they’re not greasy or stained, are recyclable, but frozen pizza boxes aren’t. In fact, beer boxes and six-pack beer bottle containers — any boxes that can go in your freezer or get soggy without losing their shape aren’t, either. Clear plastic clamshells, the kind that salads, berries, baked goods, toys and now even apples come in, also aren’t recyclable. Clothing and wood absolutely aren’t.

But perhaps the greatest offenders of all are plastic films — shrink wrap, grocery bags and plastic wrap.

“Plastic bags get caught up in the machine,” Ranta said. “We have to send in three or four guys inside them at the end of every shift to cut the bags out.”

Tanya Gray of the city of Vancouver’s Solid Waste Services said it’s easy to understand, from a consumer’s perspective, how confusing recycling can be given the increasingly broad variety of materials — especially plastics — that are appearing on the market. But the city, county and Waste Connections want people to think about what can be recycled, not what can’t.

“Recycling done right is what we want to do, not recycling everything, because not everything can be recycled,” she said. “Not everything has a market, so we ask people to pay attention to the materials can go in the bin.”

At the end of the day, consumers should focus on plastics with the recycling numbers 1, 2 and 5, like bottles and yogurt containers and butter tubs. Cans, clean cardboard and papers are also acceptable.

To help consumers navigate the confusing gap between the garbage can and the blue bin, the three organizations have created several tools.

There’s an app and a computer widget called RecycleRight available through Google Play and Apple’s App Store, in which people can look up individual items to know if they’re recyclable. They’re also created a website recyclersonly.com with a similar mission. There are also printed recycling instructions and recycling newsletters Waste Connections sends out.

For the worst offenders, recycling collectors will even leave a note on the bin, reminding its owners what should goes in and what shouldn’t.

Columbian staff writer
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