5 Things We Learned on a Recycling Center Tour That Will Make You a Better Recycler

Last week Owen and a few family members visited the Recology / Cleanscapes recycling facility in South Seattle. Visits involve both an interactive presentation and a tour of the recycling line where people over 13 can get remarkably close to the action (you’ll be that old before you know it Owen!).

Visits are free to the public and we highly recommended them for anyone interested in learning more about recycling and waste management. Seeing the process up close and hearing from Recology employees gave us a new perspective on steps we can take to do the right thing with stuff we are throwing away.

Here are 5 things we learned:

1. Lots of Extra Work Is Needed Because of the Switch to Single Stream –

Back in the old days (before Owen was born), we used to separate glass, plastic, and paper ourselves. Separating items kept contamination low, but it also meant more work for consumers so recycling rates were lower than they are today. Communities (like Seattle) responded by moving to mixed bins and more of our waste has been recycled since. Recyclables collected this way go to a Materials Recovery Facility (or MRF) like the one we visited where the primary job is to separate materials from each other. Separation happens similar to an assembly line where materials (different plastics, aluminum, paper, etc.) are removed one at a time using a combination of humans, gravity, magnetism, and computer vision. Materials are then baled and shipped to other facilities where the actual recycling happens.

2. Plastic Film Causes Major Problems – 

Plastic film is another name for the thin plastic that is all around us. Plastic bags (still common despite the ban!), outer wrapping of toilet paper packs, air pillows from Amazon boxes, dry cleaning bags, and the inside of cereal boxes are all included in this category and do not belong loose in curbside recycling bins. We saw up close why that’s the case. The assembly line had multiple people whose primary job was to manually remove thin plastics from the other materials so that loose plastic does not get caught in the machinery. Despite their best efforts, plastic film still gums up the entire line several times per day stopping the entire process! This particular facility collects 5,500 lbs of this plastic per day (!) and we know Seattle can do better. That’s why helping people properly recycle plastic film is one of the main categories that Owen’s List is focused on, so it can be processed independently and kept out of MRFs where it causes so much damage.

3. What is Recyclable is More Complex Than What’s On Flyers

The audience in our tour came prepared with questions on what is and is not recyclable and our tour guides were up to the task. It surprised us that some of the information they gave was not consistent with the flyers that we receive in the mail and see around town. Our guides explained that these are made simple to not confuse people but one drawback is communicating the nuances of more complicated items. Plastic bottles can now be recycled with the lids on them (as long as they are empty), and a wider range of plastic can be recycled than is portrayed on the signs. Flyers focus on food containers, but the real determinant is size and dimensions. Plastic should be 3-dimensional rather than flat 2-dimensional and should be larger than the length of an index finger. Our guides told us that Recology customer service department staff know the rules inside and out and encouraged us to call with any questions we have on what is and is not recyclable.

4. Why It’s Important to Keep Food Out of the Recycling  –

Our tour guide said the rule he most wanted us to follow was to make sure paper and plastic was cleaned of any food before it’s placed in recycling. The consequences for not doing this surprised us and definitely caught our attention. Food on recyclable materials can turn to mold once they are grouped in bales and sent to a buyer (often overseas). The first quality check a buyer will make after they receive a bale is to smell for mold. If they find any the entire shipping container is deemed worthless and is sent back! Not only does this add costs that make recycling less profitable, but it also comes with a massive carbon penalty from the extra shipping. Wash off that plastic and paper please!

5. There is a Wide Variety in Where Stuff Goes Afterward

We saw bales of all kinds of materials leaving the facility by truck and were surprised to learn where it all went. Some material goes overseas to Asia while others stay here in the Northwest. We learned about a facility in SoDo that processes glass just a few blocks away. And another in Tacoma that accepts bales of paper and reconstitutes it into different kinds of paper. We enjoyed learning about the local options in particular and might have a few more tours to sign up for to complete the cycle!

We very much enjoyed our tour and came away from it with a greater understanding of recycling. We hope this makes our recycling even more accurate with even less of our trash headed to landfills. Tours are free and are offered every quarter. To find out more information or to sign up for one yourself, please visit the tour page of Recology’s website.

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