Washington’s recycling rate soars beyond the rest of the country, but leaders in the state’s waste and recycling industry want this number to climb even higher.
Nationwide, recycling has ballooned from less than 7 percent in 1960 to more than 32 percent today, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 2021, Ecology reported that Washington’s recycling rate hit 49 percent.
“We can do more,” said Brad Lovaas, executive director of the Washington Refuse & Recycling Association, a representative group for the private solid waste industry. “I think for individual citizens, recycling at the curb is one of the most meaningful things you can do.”
An equally meaningful part of achieving this is ensuring people know what they’re doing, he added.
One of the largest hurdles for Waste Connections, which provides garbage and recycling services throughout Clark County, is “wishful recycling,” a good intention to be keen and green that causes more harm than good, said Derek Ranta, Waste Connections district manager.
Aspiring recyclers may toss a battery, dirty plastic jug or small pieces of garbage in Big Blue, a household’s curbside cart. What follows are labor-intensive corrections at sorting facilities, which inevitably lead to a landfill or may even spark fires — the result of those finicky, flammable batteries.
Roughly 20 percent of recyclables received at the West Van Materials Recovery Center, one of Clark County’s three transfer stations, can’t be processed because of contamination, Ranta said. Sorters spend their shifts “undoing everything that people did at home.”
This is mainly because Waste Connections has used a comingled recycling model since 2009 — everything goes into one cart. Prior to that, residents would use separate bins for paper, glass and aluminum at the curb. Minimizing consumers’ separating responsibility made recycling easier for them but more complicated for waste workers, Ranta said.
Resolving contamination in the recycling stream requires education on an individual level, he admitted, but policies and regulations can streamline this process — swapping wishfulness with fulfillment. Some may even appear in Washington’s upcoming legislative session in early January.
What can help?
Other states are inspiring steps to minimize waste streams.
In 2021, the California Legislature passed a bill, effective early 2024, that requires manufacturers to be transparent about what materials can or cannot be recycled. Products that feature “eco-friendly” labels or a triangular arrow logo (usually associated with recycled goods) may misrepresent the actual composition of the material.
The California policy minimizes “greenwashing,” or making false claims regarding an item’s environmental benefit, Lovaas said. Standardizing labeling will help eliminate confusion and prevent single-use plastics — those that aren’t recyclable — from hitting sorting facilities, according to the bill’s authors.
That same year, Oregon and Maine approved bills for extended producer responsibility programs, which requires producers to cover recycling costs for certain materials in the respective states. Doing so gives producers an incentive to make packaging more sustainable so consumers reuse goods rather than discard them.
Although Washington has similar programs, they don’t cover all materials in its recycling stream.
Other useful tweaks to improve recycling include forming a standardized statewide list of what is recyclable, ridding potential misunderstandings from those moving between cities, Lovaas said.
Some of these efforts might sound familiar.
The Washington Legislature’s latest session featured the Washington Recycling and Packaging Act, a bill that would have made producers more responsible for packaging, expanded recycling programs and created one cohesive recyclables list for the state.
Despite passing multiple committees, the bill failed to move forward after not being called to the House floor for a vote.
Supporters, including utilities, municipal governments and environmental groups, said the bill would make recycling more efficient and boost public participation.
However, not all the Washington Recycling and Packaging Act’s components were accepted by those in the waste industry. Those in opposition, including the Washington Refuse & Recycling Association, said certain elements could increase costs for customers.
Specifically, the association took issue with a requirement for a potential deposit-return system for beverage containers. Under this rule, residents would pay 10 cents on bottles and return them at drop-offs to get the deposit back — an incentive to boost recycling rates.
Ranta said Waste Connections has a well-seasoned system that already captures this material. Imposing a deposit would make its curbside program more expensive for customers, as the company would have to compensate for its deficit in revenue that would otherwise come from the bottles.
“Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken,” he said.
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