by Kathryn Davis, Puget Soundkeeper Stewardship Manager

The dawn of recycling was not very long ago. As disposable, single use items became widely available after the 1950s, landfills were quickly overcrowded. Municipal recycling services gained momentum in the 1970s to recover these otherwise wasted materials. Cities like Seattle went a step further and implemented “single-stream” recycling. No need to sort paper, glass, plastic and aluminum; combine it in one bin and local sorting facilities will take care of the rest! This convenience, combined with a mandatory recycling law, has resulted in one of the highest recycling rates in the country.

Efficient recycling has obvious environmental benefits. However, the discussion around the economics of recycling remains complicated.

In the Puget Sound area and around the globe, many recyclables are shipped to China for repurposing. High labor costs and environmental regulations have made it prohibitive to recycle most materials domestically. However, once overseas, these products enter a complex system of small-scale operators who sort, grind and melt plastics and other goods into usable forms for manufacturers. This has resulted in serious water and air pollution problems, and workers are often exposed to dangerous chemicals and working conditions without proper protection.  

Starting in January 2018, China stopped accepting many imported recyclables due to high levels of contamination. The country hopes to improve air quality and protect natural resources by reducing pollution from plastics recycling. Imported bales of recycled plastic often contain other unwanted materials, or pathogens from leftover food waste, dirty diapers, and other hazardous material. In addition, the fluctuating price of oil and other raw materials for plastic production often makes it cheaper to manufacture new materials. As a result, it is often more cost effective to focus on manufacturing virgin plastic rather than relying on an uncertain supply of recycled materials that need intensive processing.  

Approximately 790,000 metric tons of recyclables were shipped to China through the ports of Seattle and Tacoma in 2017 – equal to over 238 pounds of recycling per person in the state of Washington.

Cities around the world are scrambling to find new markets and implement better sorting practices to achieve the 0.5% contamination limit now required for imports to China. While this has caused serious disruption to an already volatile industry, it is also an opportunity to rethink responsible waste management.

Scientists are working to develop plastics that are more effectively recycled, which could cut down on waste and pollution. Cities and counties, including King County, are committing time and resources to come up with local solutions. In the long term, a successful solution means shifting both consumption habits and waste management processes – and acknowledging that recycling has never really been a great option for keeping waste out of our environment. A 2017 study found that of all the plastic ever created, only 9 percent was successfully recycled.

Soundkeeper is working on exploring policy solutions that can reduce the flow of plastic to waterways, while continuing to regularly clean up marine debris around Puget Sound. In 2017, volunteers cleaned up over 15,000 pounds of trash from Puget Sound shorelines, rivers and lakes.  

At the individual level, you can do your part to lower recycling contamination by making sure items are empty, clean, and dry before they are placed in your recycling bin, and avoiding “aspirational recycling” by knowing what’s likely to cause contamination. Ultimately, it is also important to reduce consumption of single use items to curb the amount of waste we collectively generate.

This article was originally published in Puget Soundkeeper’s 2017 International Coastal Cleanup report. You can read the full report online.