You probably heard this joke in the ’90s:

Why don’t Seahawks fans throw bottles and cans out on the field after the game?

Because they’re afraid they won’t be properly recycled.

Here in Western Washington, we recycle. Other parts of the country are years behind us—in infrastructure and in personal habits. We’re the people who disassemble the Kleenex container, tear out the plastic window and flatten the cardboard box.

As zealous as we are about recycling, most of us have no idea where our recycling is actually done. We throw the water bottle into the blue receptacle at the park, and next week it magically reappears in the form of a new park bench with a sign noting that it was made from over 2,000 plastic water bottles. We feel virtuous, and then pop open another Aquafina.

Recycling bins at a collection facility. Photo courtesy: Washington Department of Ecology.

For years, China was the largest importer of U.S. recyclables. Until recently, they wanted the raw materials to use in manufacturing. With the increase in single stream recycling (using a single collection container for mixed recyclables), contamination in export bales also increased.  The contamination caused too much pollution, and in 2018 China stopped most of their recyclable-material importing.

According to the Sierra Club, part of the problem lies with Americans trying too hard to recycle everything that is theoretically recyclable (often called “wishful recycling” or “speculative recycling.”) Plastic straws, disposable diapers, plastic bags and other items jam the sorting machinery, causing breakdowns, down time, and contamination of materials.

You’ve seen the news stories over the last few months; China is no longer buying recyclable materials from any country—the ban is worldwide, and the U.S. domestic markets can’t pickup the slack fast enough. Some cities have suspended their recycling programs until they find a destination for their materials. How does this affect us here in Whatcom County? Does it even matter anymore if we throw our soda can in the blue bin?

Recycling tote awaiting curbside pickup. Photo courtesy: SSC, Inc.

Yes! Keep it up, please! According to Rodd Pemble at Sanitary Service Company (SSC), we’re doing far better than most localities. Our costs have risen because of the changes in the global market, but our recycling program continues as it always has. Why? Because we have clean recyclables. Our very low contamination rate allows us to compete in the world recycling market where ‘Clean is King.’

What does “a very low contamination rate” mean? Let’s start at SSC, the company that collects the bins and the totes from our homes and apartment complexes. You might think they rigorously sort every piece you put in your bin, so it’s okay to toss in a plastic straw or a used Starbucks cup, because if it’s not recyclable, they’ll catch it, right? Wrong, the SSC drivers give the bin or tote a glance and see how well sorted it is. If the materials aren’t correctly sorted, they reject the lot and notify the customer to properly sort the material or put it in the trash.

SSC actively supports bicycle use and safety. Photo courtesy: SSC, Inc.

Truckloads of recyclables are then taken to Northwest Recycling in Bellingham, where sorting equipment and employees carefully separate, process, and pack materials for shipping to their destination, whether it’s a scrap yard, a regional buyer, or a shipping container bound for Malaysia or India.

Our success is due in part to being good at recycling and in part to SSC and Northwest Recycling being good at getting our stuff ready to go. We can help them at home by paying attention to two things:

1. Recycle the Right Things

Don’t throw everything in recycling in the hope that it will get taken. This is where the road to hell is truly paved with good intentions—it is wasteful to throw that plastic toy with no recycling symbol on it in the trash, but it’s even worse to throw it in recycling in the hope that it will get taken. You’re creating more work for collectors, and that toy is never getting recycled. If you live in a multi-unit complex where you share recycling bins with others, you’re ruining recycling for everyone by being a little bit overzealous. Stick to the rules, look at the sticker on your bin and follow the directions. Only put in items that are specifically permitted.

2. Make sure your items are empty and clean.

Your plastic peanut butter jar that hasn’t been washed may cause the entire bin to get rejected. If you’re not willing to rinse out your recyclables, please don’t throw them in the recycling bin. It’s better to throw them in the trash, especially if you share bins. It’s not fair to the people who make the effort to wash their items.

If paper has any food staining, it’s not recyclable. Your McDonald’s bag with the oily spot on the bottom, greasy pizza box, paper coffee cup with the dregs of a latte in the bottom: those are not recyclable—but they may be compostable. Read the sticker on your tote if you have SSC’s FoodPlus! composting service to see what you can put in that bin. You can get detailed information online as well here. Seriously, any question you could possibly have is likely answered there.

Make sure your recyclables are “clean, dry, and empty,” as well as sorted properly. Thanks to everyone’s hard work, we’re doing great here in Whatcom County. We should be proud of that and keep it going!

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