In 2018 China restricted global imports of waste and recyclable materials, giving new urgency to the mantra “reduce, reuse, recycle.”
After China stopped welcoming the world’s waste, local communities were compelled to establish healthier waste management systems and develop markets for recyclables.
China had been recycling over 60% of Washington’s recyclable materials, according to the Department of Ecology’s Recycling Development Center.
China said its decision was based on environmental and public health concerns, and that it would accept materials having no more than 0.05% contamination, said Heather Trim, executive director of Zero Waste Washington. At the time, material from processing facilities in the Pacific Northwest had between 11% and 20% contamination.
“Material recovery facilities put on extra staff and slowed down their lines so they could do a better job at reducing contamination,” Trim said.
According to Ecology’s Solid Waste and Recycling Data, over 8.3 million tons of materials were collected for recycling in 2018. The increase in the amount of materials that needed to be processed added to the challenge for domestic markets.
Huge shift to a better system
“We had to take that market and process it domestically, but we weren’t able to do so because we didn’t have the processing plants necessary,” said Callie Martin, Waste Reduction Recycling Education Specialist for Skagit County’s Solid Waste Division.
Martin said there had to be a huge market shift in what could and could not be recycled domestically—and now the system works better than before the China ban.
“We have a lot more direct education campaigns for recycling now and the markets have been able to strengthen themselves slowly but surely,” Martin said. “We know what we’re dealing with now.”
Martin said China’s restrictions forced the industry to refocus and reset recycling goals; a healthy development for solid waste management.
While the recycling system has been able to accommodate and process materials domestically, the amount of waste and contaminated recyclable materials remains a problem.
The state generated over 5 million tons of waste in 2020 which went to landfills or incineration, according to the Waste Characterization Study done by Ecology in 2021.
Much of the waste sent for disposal represents recyclable materials such as paper, metal and plastic. Trim said the solution to this problem is twofold.
“For the material that is recyclable, we’ve really got to get a more consistent system across the state, so people are not confused, and a stronger education program so people know what to put in each bin,” Trim said. “For the stuff that is not recyclable, we need the manufacturers to redesign their products so that they would be recyclable.”
First: engage the customer
To improve efficiency, counties and local companies are engaging in the crucial work with consumers to raise awareness, in stable domestic recyclable markets and waste management systems.
Skagit and Whatcom counties are emphasizing educational programs and informational access to help people recycle correctly.
Sanitary Service Company collects waste and recycling in most of Whatcom County’s rural area and in Bellingham and Ferndale. Rodd Pemble, Recycling and Safety Manager, said “cities generally have higher per capita participation and recycling recovery rates.”
He said the recycling system could be improved by customers separating materials better and by getting rural residents to participate rather than haul their garbage to transfer stations.
Communitywide recycling special events are planned in Skagit County, where people can bring difficult-to-recycle items that would not normally go into a curbside bin, Martin said.
Jennifer Hayden, Environmental Health Supervisor for the Whatcom County Solid Waste Program, said one of the challenges is that there are multiple places to go for information about disposal and recycling and people might not necessarily know what to do.
Whatcom County recently launched WasteWise, an online waste and recycling portal providing centralized information. “People can find out exactly where and how to get rid of things,” Hayden said.
Hayden said there needs to be a focus on both individual behavior, by encouraging people to reduce their consumption, and societal change, through leadership to improve the system and reduce contamination.
“A combination of those two things I think are what it’s going to take to improve the circular economy, the recycling systems and the composting systems that we have set up in our county,” Hayden said.
Bags, forks and foamware
“We’ve had a lot of really exciting developments in recycling and waste reduction policy in Washington over the past three years,” Martin said. “We had the plastic bag ban, a policy to decrease the use of single-use plastic service ware, and we will have a policy to get rid of Styrofoam takeout containers.”
Whatcom County established a three-bin system in the ’80s, to separate recyclable materials and reduce contamination in curbside bins,
“We’re one of very few counties to have that system,” Hayden said. “Our levels of contamination are much lower than they are in other counties that have co-mingled recyclables.”
Troy Lautenbach, owner and president of Lautenbach Recycling, including the processing facility in Ferndale that handles material collected from bins in Whatcom County, said the facility sees very little contamination when material arrives to be bailed up and sent to secondary processors. [Ed.: corrected original reference to a Mount Vernon facility; May 23, 2022]
“Our materials are extremely valuable and we are able to send them to places where a lot of curbside recycling facilities aren’t able to because of the contamination rate and the quality of recyclables,” Lautenbach said.
While the three-bin system works well, Lautenbach said, collection of materials is energy- and labor-intensive.
To measure the efficiency of a single-stream system, Sanitary Services Company and the City of Bellingham launched a pilot program this month for single-stream pickup in Bellingham’s Edgemoor neighborhood.
“What’s driving it is two separate things: one is the simplicity and convenience for the consumer,” said Lautenbach, the other “is that the carbon footprint and the expense of the collection of the three-bin system is very intense.”
From a processing point of view, Lautenbach said his company has no issue with the three-bin system at the moment and keeps producing high quality bails. “We are processing material that comes in the way it is right now and handling that no problem,” Lautenbach said.
The producer’s role?
Trim said that since China’s restriction in 2018, major efforts were made in Washington to reorganize facilities and sorting systems to reduce contamination.
As the system recovers from the change, legislators are looking to move from efficiency to holding producers responsible for the materials introduced into the waste stream.
In the 2022 legislative session, the Renew Act was introduced to establish “a program for the management of consumer packaging and paper products to be funded and implemented by producers of those products.”
The program intended to establish “reuse and recycling rate targets, convenient collection service standards, responsible management, infrastructure investments, and education and outreach.” The bill did not pass out of committee.
Bills like the Renew Act assign financial and operational responsibility to producers, according to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. Producers would pay fees to a collective producer responsibility organization that would then redistribute funds for the costs of recycling and disposal.
“[The Renew Act] would have had quite a few measures to reduce waste and to incentivize the manufacturers to create materials that are recyclable,” Trim said. “What you see in those programs are much, much higher recycling rates, and in the newer programs they are requiring eco-modulated fees.”
Martin said there has been a lot of success in those programs in the way waste gets more efficiently disposed of and packaging becomes more responsibly created.
“It forces the producer to put more effort into their waste reduction practices and into their responsibility toward creating packaging that might otherwise be difficult to recycle for the consumer,” Martin said.
This type of legislation has been introduced in 15 states this year and was passed in Oregon and Maine last summer. Other countries such as Canada and members of the European Union have implemented these programs years ago.
“It would actually make recycling across the state consistent, and not only consistent, but reliable,” Trim said.
From the perspective of a processing facility, Lautenbach said he had more reservations with the concept. Speaking from a conference on recycling in Las Vegas, he said a presentation on extended producer responsibility in regard to packaging addressed its benefits and impacts.
“It was brought up that the producers of the material then could possibly have too much control over the processors and dictate the pricing,” Lautenbach said. “That could be very problematic for a processor.”
But Lautenbach said that the idea of producers having responsibility for their products had some merit.
“The reason why I’m reluctant to go down that road is that I feel there’s more energy than there’s ever been around sustainability movements, from recycling to climate change, to all of these different things,” Lautenbach said. “There is a ton of investment, energy and technology going into all of these conversations.”
Trim said the Renew Act is slated to be reintroduced in next year’s legislative session.
— Reported by Clifford Heberden
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