There’s little debate that Clallam County likes to recycle — but how well we recycle is up for interpretation.
State waste professionals say an average recycling truck contains 15-25 percent of contaminants— items that cannot be recycled and/or ruin other recyclable items.
“Even with slowed down sorting lines and extra personnel, materials reclamation facilities that sort recyclables struggle to reduce contamination to the 0.5 percent acceptable level set by China,” said Meggan Uecker, Clallam County solid waste coordinator.
In 2018 China began reducing recyclable imports because of new regulations to cut down on non-recyclable items, such as food-soiled items, diapers and light bulbs, Uecker said.
This policy has trickled down locally to Waste Connections, Clallam County’s recycling contractor. Its entities — Olympic Disposal, DM Disposal and Murrey’s Disposal — sets contract with the county and North Olympic Peninsula cities to pick up recycling from the West End to Sequim and bring it all back to its Port Angeles facility, where it is bailed and sent to a Tacoma facility.
Co-mingled recycling isn’t sorted in Port Angeles, but Uecker said she and other county officials hope to reduce contamination through education efforts.
To analyze how well Clallam County recycles, Uecker led a “recycling audit” on May 31 with fellow staff members and volunteers. The small team sorted through about half of a 30-yard truckload of co-mingled recycling from large blue bins.
They pulled out non-recyclable items ranging from baby gates to bubble wrap, to plastic bags filled with more bags, to a car’s front bumper.
By day’s end, they filled 7-and-one-half yards of garbage bins with incorrect materials.
“Looking at this, you wouldn’t say that’s recyclable,” Uecker said.
Dave Schaumburg, operator at Murrey’s Recyclables Facility in Port Angeles, said staff spot and pull out large non-recyclable items like garden hoses, tarps, bicycles and Styrofoam.
“If you see a TV box, there’s more than likely Styrofoam in it,” he said.
On average, the Port Angeles facility sends about four loads of co-mingled recycling with about 50 bales per load weekly to Tacoma.
Keep it simple
With a laundry list of items that can and cannot be recycled, Uecker said they want their messaging to be simple about recycling to residents. That includes the following:
• Recycle items that are clean, empty and dry
• Recycle items loose in bins; do not bag recycling or put plastic bags in bins
• Recycle items on your local list at www.clallam.net/go/recycling
• When in doubt, leave it out
“Keeping things clean, empty and dry and getting plastic bags out of recycling — if we just got that eliminated, that would drastically improve our recycling stream,” Uecker said.
One of the biggest culprits in recycling contamination, she said, is plastic single carry-out bags. They remain an issue for recyclers with two problems: one, the plastic bags entangle in conveyor belts and machinery, and two, they sometimes contain recyclables that sorters might miss at large facilities.
As an alternative, many large grocery stores host plastic bag recycling centers at their storefront. Newspaper delivery bags and some bubble wrap can be returned there, too.
Uecker also encourages people to empty out laundry soap, peanut butter and soda containers.
“It can save you money too,” she said. “You can get one more load of laundry out of it if you pour some water in it, or use a spatula and make one more sandwich with the peanut butter.”
Pizza boxes are a common contaminant, along with soft clamshell containers for fruits and to-go coffee cups. They cannot be recycled and should be thrown out. Pet food bags also cannot be recycled.
Megan Davis, Clallam County waste prevention specialist, said residents should not recycle shredded paper and instead compost it or take it to a shred event who will use the papers in a more environmentally-friendly way.
“It has do with the fiber size. It’s too small to be collected and recycled,” Davis said. “It becomes a litter and/or wet and contaminated.”
“Some people think they can throw anything in there and someone at the recycling center will deal with it, but instead it becomes a burden on the system and threaten recycling markets,” Uecker said.
The why and how
Through the decades, people have been told recycling is good but without clear communication to ensure quality recyclability, Uecker said.
Consumers also generally believe demand is high enough to cover costs because recycling seems free.
Uecker said this belief sometimes “encourages recycling of materials that should be paid to be disposed of in the landfill.”
Port Angeles and Sequim city residents co-mingle their recycling in curbside blue bins with recycling costs embedded in bills while eastern Clallam County residents are shown a separate cost on bills from Waste Connections.
How contaminated items end up in recycling bins varies between households — either as an accident or negligence, waste managers say.
“We should throw away items that aren’t recyclable even if we think it is able to be recycled,” Uecker said.
There are also people called “wish-cyclers” who hope certain items will recycle, even though they may not.
“It is better for the recycling industry and for the sustainability of this service to follow the mantra, ‘When in doubt, leave it out,’” Uecker said.
For the “recycling audit,” Uecker said her hope was to get baseline data for the county to begin following new state legislation that requires counties to create long-term waste reduction plans.
She said they’ll compile the data and use it for more outreach along with applications for future grants to continue their efforts and find more hyper-local education opportunities.
County staff will also continue working with partners with the Solid Waste Advisory Committee and local cities, she said.
“We want to have a unified message,” Uecker said. “It’s all going to the same shed and market.”
This week, county recycling drop boxes will feature new stickers to better show what can be recycled in each box.
“Recycling is not a catch-all,” Uecker said. “We need to learn to differentiate and not just put everything that won’t fit in the garbage can.”
For more information about recycling efforts, visit www.clallam.net/go/ recycling or call Uecker at 360-417-2441.
Where to drop off recycling
• Regional Transfer Station, 3501 W. 18th St., Port Angeles
• Blue Mountain Transfer Station, one mile up Blue Mountain Road
• City of Sequim, 169 W. Hemlock St. (vehicle batteries and motor oil)
Where it goes
Drop boxes collect mixed paper, corrugated cardboard, glass, and TAP (tin, aluminum, and plastic) containers. Mixed paper, which includes chipboard cereal and food boxes, newspaper, office paper, and magazines and TAP (only bottles, jugs, cans, and tubs made from tin, aluminum or plastic) are baled and sent to Materials Reclamation Facility in Tacoma.
Corrugated cardboard is sent to Port Townsend Paper mill.
Brown, green and clear glass is collected together and sold to various glass recyclers in Western Washington to be made into new bottles or construction material.
Drop boxes for glass can be found at Evergreen Collision, 703 E. Washington St., Sequim; Country Aire Market, 200 W. First St., Port Angeles; and at Plaza East in Port Angeles.
Find locations to recycle plastic bags at www.plasticfilmrecycling.org.
Learn more about Clallam County recycling efforts at www.clallam.net/go/recycling or by calling Meggan Uecker, Clallam County solid waste coordinator, at 360-417-2441.
Reach Matthew Nash at firstname.lastname@example.org.