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News / Clark County News

Department of Ecology officials say bagging recyclables does more harm than good

Your intentions may be good, but plastic bags are a contaminant

By Lauren Ellenbecker, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 5, 2023, 5:40pm

You might recycle, but are you doing it right?

About 20 percent of Washington residents who responded to a state Department of Ecology survey reported putting recyclables in a plastic bag before tossing them in a curbside recycling bin, reasoning that the practice is convenient, clean and helpful for workers.

But despite the goodness of these intentions, bagging is damaging.

Plastic bags are one of the largest contaminants in the state’s residential recycling stream, according to Ecology.

Though a bag contains recyclables, workers sorting materials are required to send the bundle to a landfill because its contents are unknown. The plastic bags that escape sorters can get tangled in equipment, causing delays or getting mixed in with recyclables.

“People in Washington value the environment, and they are enthusiastic about recycling, but bagging your recyclables does more harm than good,” Department of Ecology Director Laura Watson said in a statement.

The department is on a quest to steer well-intentioned consumers toward correct disposal with its aptly named “Recycle Right” campaign, which will remain live through April. Tips for proper recycling can be found at www.ecology.wa.gov/RecycleRight.

Residents can be assured that paper, plastic jugs and bottles, metal cans, and cardboards boxes without tape can be safely placed in a recycling bin. Keep food and liquids, plastic and film bags, takeout containers and styrofoam out.

This also means recyclable materials must be “spotless” and dry before getting sorted, according to Waste Connections. Being purposeful matters, as many of these items are recycled to their original state or transformed into new materials. Any degree of contamination risks this process.

If you have doubts about what can or can’t be recycled, visit Clark County Public Health’s recycling service website, www.clark.wa.gov/public-health/residential-recycling-service.  Folks can also enter a specific item in the county’s online “Recycling A-Z” tool, www.clark.wa.gov/public-health/recycling-z, or through the Recycle Right app.

Community Funded Journalism logo

This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.

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Columbian staff writer