State cautions on recycling certain plastics as market slims

VIDEO: Changes for recycling in Washington

SEATTLE — Big changes are coming for recycling in Washington. People around the state are already seeing rate hikes on their bills.

And the state could be recommending Washington counties to stop recycling some plastics and even glass, depending on if there’s a market for it.

People in the industry seem to agree that there is a problem with the recycling industry in Washington.

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“There (are) just stacks and stacks and stacks of recyclables going to the landfill,” said Braunsen Goebel, an employee of West Seattle Recycling. The company is a contractor for Waste Management and picks up recycling.

There are two reasons why all that recycling is going to the landfill. One problem is contamination, which has been an issue for a long time.

“Every time I see a container that's been washed carefully, sorted, put in there – I might see that 1 for every 100 that's contaminated and full of what’s in there. For the most part, it's a disgusting mess,” Goebel said.

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Looking through the recycling bins of one West Seattle apartment complex Tuesday, Goebel found bags of hospital scrubs, a tire, fluorescent lights, food waste and bag of diapers. None of those items are recyclable.

“It’s frustrating,” Goebel said. “I’ve tried a lot of things -- left short notes, left long notes. Sometimes, we see results. A lot of times, we don’t,” he said.

The second problem is China - Washington's biggest buyer of recycling is no longer shopping here.

China dramatically increased its standards last year for how clean that recycling needs to be.

So now, people at recycling centers are sorting and cleaning all the items, which is making the recycling process more expensive.

But it's still not enough to bring China back as a buyer.

So the cleaned recycled materials get bundled and stored, waiting for a buyer. After a while, it’s determined there’s no value to the materials and they go to the the landfill – in an expensive, roundabout way.

It means since China implemented “National Sword,” the higher recycling standards, the percentage of stuff in recycling bins that end up in the landfill has quadrupled over the past year, according to the Washington Refuse and Recycling Association.

But Washington's Utilities and Transportation Commission (UTC) - which oversees unincorporated county and some city recycling plans - is looking to shake things up and take a step toward fixing the problem.

In a letter sent out to all Washington counties it said it plans to review counties' recycling plans and determine "whether the plan includes a finding that those recyclable materials have a positive economic value."

Then the UTC could potentially recommend no longer collecting glass, most types regular consumer plastics, and some other materials. That would send some of those things straight to the landfill cut out the process of sorting, cleaning, and storing before it ends up there.

“It’s unfortunate it's come to that but I think it's a good idea. I think sometimes it can get so overwhelming what you put in the recycle and trash,” said Cindy Webb, who lives in West Seattle.

The UTC said some people in 11 counties have already seen rate hikes. Some increases are more than $4.50 per month and more rate hikes could be coming.

There is no timeline yet for when any recommendations will come but the UTC said it will start reviewing counties’ recycling plans as they’re submitted to the Department of Ecology.

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Washington state regulators are asking counties to consider not recycling certain plastic and other products if there's not a market for it.

Since China stopped buying certain recycled waste, such as certain plastics, unsorted paper and scrap metals, more of those items are piling up at landfills.

KUOW-FM reports that companies that can't sell those products have been asking the state to approve higher solid waste rates for consumers.

Dave Danner, chair of the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission, says that if there isn't a market for certain plastic or other products, it makes more sense to reduce and reuse in the first place. Otherwise, he says, it costs money to sort and process those items, which eventually end up in the landfill.

Some waste contractors in Seattle and other urban areas are still finding markets for those items, but others are not.