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News / Life / Clark County Life

Reducing, recycling easy in Clark County — but also tricky

Learn which items are recyclable in Clark County, where to take them and also which ones to dispose of in garbage

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 15, 2023, 6:03am

Still swimming in cardboard boxes, block foam, bubble wrap and colored lights — not to mention that bizarrely off-the-mark present from you-know-who?

Recycling and donating used stuff has grown both easier and trickier in Clark County in recent years. Officials with the county’s public health, waste-reduction and environmental programs are eager to spread the word about both sides of that equation.

Big Blue, your rolling curb cart, remains the right way to get rid of most recyclables. But many problematic leftovers require more thought and effort to dispose of responsibly. That’s because the local market for recyclable items is always changing and churning.

Poly problem

The best recent example is polystyrene or block foam. There just aren’t any good local options for disposing of it.

Please don’t put polystyrene in your curbside recycling cart. You must either haul it to a recycling plant yourself or just throw it away, which adds bulky and toxic material to our fast-filling landfills. Neither solution seems right.

Polystyrene is tough to handle and transport. While 95 percent air, it’s chemically complex and costly to clean and break down. Few U.S. jurisdictions collect and recycle it. (Meanwhile, in Germany, polystyrene collection and recycling is mandatory.)

“Polystyrene has gone back and forth over the last few years,” said Tina Kendall, Clark County’s environmental outreach manager.

Waste Connections, Clark County’s trash and recycling hauler, used to provide polystyrene drop boxes at Clark County’s three transfer stations but those have been discontinued, Kendall said.

Now, for $5 a load, you can take polystyrene to Earth Friendly Recycling, a specialty recycler, at 11825 N.E. 113th St., Suite 100, Vancouver. Or drop polystyrene off for free where Waste Connections used to truck it: Agilyx, about half an hour from downtown Vancouver at 13420 S.W. Wall St., Tigard, Ore.

Failing all that, Kendall said, just throw polystyrene away.

Big Blue basics

The county and Waste Connections maintain detailed lists of what does and doesn’t go into Big Blue, but here’s an overview.

Plastic bottles, tubs and buckets are all OK. But plastic lids and bottle caps are not. Paper of all sorts is OK, including cardboard, cereal boxes and (rinsed-out) milk cartons. So are standard, small units of consumer metal, like aluminum and tin cans, pie plates and empty aerosol cans. Scrap metal is OK too if not too small but not too large (between 2 and 24 inches, no heavier than 35 pounds). Remove all other materials, like wood and rubber, from anything metal.

Don’t put glass into Big Blue. Glass bottles and jars go in a separate bin (but if they’re broken, throw them out).

Stretchy and rigid plastic

Never put stretchy plastic film — like produce bags, bread bags and bubble wrap — into Big Blue. It gums up sorting equipment, and Waste Connections labors by hand to yank it out of the recycling stream before that can happen. (Watch that work underway at clark.wa.gov/public-health/plastics, in a video from Waste Connections’ sorting facility.)

But stretchy plastic can be recycled. Take it back to your local grocer or sign up for a service that picks up hard-to-recycle materials for an additional fee.

Unfortunately, plastic food containers and other miscellaneous plastic packaging — from the clamshell that holds your berries or sandwich to the rigid, sharp pack that makes it virtually impossible to liberate that new gadget or toy without laceration — shouldn’t go in Big Blue either. Clamshells are another job for special recycling services. Most other rigid plastic packaging can’t be recycled at all.

The truth about numbers

What about those numbers — the little 1s and 3s and 7s surrounded by arrows stamped into plastic packages? Ignore them, Kendall said.

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They tell manufacturers and recyclers about chemical composition. But they don’t tell consumers and curbside collectors anything useful at all.

In this iffy recycling market, Kendall said, what matters is the shape and size of the plastic item, not what it’s made of.

“Plastic is such a broad term and there are so many types,” Kendall said. “We encourage people to go by shape and size, not numbers. What manufacturers print on packaging is often misleading and confusing. It’s tough because we don’t want to discourage people. But we don’t want to contaminate what we can recycle with what we can’t.”

Ridwell, RecyclePlus

New services have arrived in Clark County that scoop up many (not all) of the plastics and other problem recyclables that Big Blue doesn’t want. These services are not free.

First, in summer 2021, came Ridwell, based in Seattle and now Portland too. Ridwell charges $12 to $16 per month for a pickup every two weeks. Members get a special bin and bags for various problem recyclables including plastic film, batteries, light bulbs and used clothing. Plastic clam shells cost an additional $1 per bag and block foam costs $9 per bag.

Hot on Ridwell’s heels, Waste Connections launched an additional service called RecyclePlus, which works the same way: biweekly pickup of plastic film, batteries, light bulbs, textiles and more. Block foam and clamshells are included in the basic price, which is $10 per month. Only extra bags cost more.

A to Z

The county’s thorough Recycling A to Z Directory will tell you how to recycle or donate nearly anything you can think of. If you must throw it away, the website will tell you that too.

  • Used shoes? The database lists all the local thrift stores that will resell them, the donation bins that take them, the West Coast regional collector that offers no-contact porch pickup, and the Christian ministry that wants them for African orphans.
  • Crushed concrete? The database lists the building-materials waste collectors and recyclers that will take it.
  • Appliance, couch, car tire, big screen TV? The database will suggest donation sites or steer you to a special collection page for bulky and electronic items, where you can arrange to have them collected for a fee (usually $16 and up). Vancouver residents get one free appliance pickup per year.
  • Plastic lids? Throw them away. Like stretchy bags, they’re just not compatible with recycling equipment.
  • Peanut butter jars? That’s a tough one, Kendall admitted. If you’re really going to clean it, then it goes in the glass recycling. If not — be honest, now — Clark County encourages you to throw it away.

Donate it

Clark County is packed with resale shops, consignment stores and charities. Visit the county’s Thrift Store and Donation map at clarkgreenneighbors.org/en/thrift-store-donation-map to find out where they are and what they’ll accept.

Food and organics

Around 1.2 million tons of food, both edible and inedible, is wasted in Washington annually. Divert food from the landfill by using less and recycling or composting leftovers.

In Vancouver and Ridgefield only, you can put food scraps of all sorts — but never food packaging, even the kind labeled as compostable — into your organics cart. It gets collected every other week.

Elsewhere, don’t put food scraps in your yard debris cart. Consider taking up backyard composting, either in a pile (labor-intensive for quality compost) or a worm bin (easier but iffier). Clark County has lots of resources on composting and food waste reduction, including training courses, links and a free waste-free-kitchen handbook, at clarkgreenneighbors.org/en/food-too-good-to-waste.

Learn to say no

The Columbian wanted to call this story “How to Recycle Everything,” but Kendall advised us to trash that idea.

You cannot recycle everything. You can do your best to do everything right — painstakingly separating lids from jars, bagging up used batteries, hauling your own polystyrene or hazardous chemical waste to the right handler — but it’s even more important to reduce your use, Kendall said.

“Learn to say ‘no’ to single-use materials,” she said. “Our overall message is to reduce what you waste in the first place. Try living a low-waste lifestyle.”

To learn more, see the Clark Green Neighbors webpage or sign up for the next Master Composter Recycler course, which meets virtually on seven consecutive Wednesday nights beginning Feb. 1.