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Employees remove items that cannot be recycled from a conveyer belt on Friday, October 26, 2018, at Cascade Recycling Center in Woodinville. 
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Employees remove items that cannot be recycled from a conveyer belt on Friday, October 26, 2018, at Cascade Recycling Center in Woodinville.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Seattle, you were terrible at recycling. Now for a second chance

Oh, the agony. You stand frozen in front of bins that mock you. Puzzle through signs riddled with photos of banana peels, plastic jugs and kitchen grease – ghosts of past trash.

The questions plague you. WHICH BIN DOES IT GO IN? CAN I RECYCLE THIS?

You look left, then right. You chuck the plastic strawberry container into the bin and hope no one notices.

But China noticed. This year China banned the import of many recyclables and required the rest to be much cleaner and virtually free of non-recyclable material, like peanut butter from that jar (busted). The value of our recyclables has plummeted and costs of recycling have increased.

As a result, the recycling industry and local utilities across the U.S. are scrambling to adjust operations and educate consumers where to put their waste. The ultimate goal is to clean up the stream of recyclables they collect and ensure the materials have a market. Contaminated recyclables and materials without buyers can become garbage.

“With the collapse of the markets, there is a movement towards ‘back to the basics’ of looking and collecting only those materials that have solid markets,” said Alli Kingfisher, statewide recycling coordinator for the state Department of Ecology. “The challenge is those markets are still in flux.”

Seattle is coming up with new mantras in an attempt to make our recycling cleaner. Mantras such as, “Recycle right,” and “Empty, Clean and Dry,” and “When in doubt, find out.” (Or alternately: “When in doubt, leave it out.”)

Fliers going out will say:

1: No plastic in the compost.

2: No food in the recycling.

3: No food or recycling in the garbage.

A new recycling list provides fewer examples of what is recyclable, and three rules to live by. The actual number of items the city allows you to recycle isn’t changing though.

Still, recyclers beware: Each area has a different list of what is allowed in the recycling bin. The list that applies to your workplace or school may be different than the one for your home.

The changes are more than revamped graphic design, and they’re not just for your benefit. This year China banned the import of many recyclables and required the rest to be much cleaner and virtually free of non-recyclable material, like peanut butter from that jar (busted). The value of our recyclables has plummeted and costs of recycling have increased.

As a result, the recycling industry and local utilities across the U.S. are scrambling to adjust operations and educate consumers where to put their waste. The ultimate goal is to clean up the stream of recyclables they collect and ensure the materials have a market. Contaminated recyclables and materials without buyers can become garbage.

“With the collapse of the markets, there is a movement towards ‘back to the basics’ of looking and collecting only those materials that have solid markets,” said Alli Kingfisher, statewide recycling coordinator for the state Department of Ecology. “The challenge is those markets are still in flux.”

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The new recycling list for Seattle Public Utilities customers went to apartment and condo residents this fall and will arrive in the mailboxes of single-family homes in February, according to the agency.

The new fliers emphasize a few key points.


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Those “core recyclables” include materials such as plastic bottles and jugs labeled with the numbers one and two, mixed office paper, cardboard, and aluminum and steel cans.

Recycling lists outside of Seattle may be changing, too. Recycling company, Waste Management, has been talking with local cities about how to adjust to the fluctuating markets. The company picks up garbage, recycling and yard waste for areas across Western Washington, including parts of Seattle.

“If we don’t have the market for a specific material, we have to go talk to the city about doing something differently,” Waste Management spokesperson Jackie Lang said. “Over time we’ve been able to get approvals and make some changes to some of the recycling lists.”

Lang would not specify what areas or which lists the company has had a hand in changing, but encouraged consumers to check the Waste Management website or their local utility.

Waste Management has also responded to Chinese restrictions by slowing down and adding more workers to their sorting lines, which separate comingled recyclables.

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“What we hope people are hearing and understanding is that it’s more important than ever to know what’s acceptable in your local recycling program,” Lang said.