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.”
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.