Yes, contaminates in recyling range from residue in plastic containers to Christmas lights and trees to bowling balls.
The first is the easiest to solve. Just put some soap in it and shake it up, Caitlin Newman, Kitsap County Recycling supervisor, told a Bainbridge Island Zero Waste webinar audience on Zoom Nov. 3. “It doesn’t have to be pristine clean,” she said.
As for Christmas lights, “take them to a metal recycler; you can get something for them,” said Mike Range, the other webinar speaker. He is senior manager of Waste Management’s Pacific Northwest MRFs, which includes the recycling facility in Tacoma where materials are sorted and baled.
As for Christmas trees, in most areas Scouts recycle them for a donation. And bowling balls are accepted at many thrift stores.
Contamination has always been an issue in recycling, but it really became a focus since 2018 when China, the No. 1 buyer of recyclables, decided to focus on quality over quantity. U.S. companies had to provide cleaner products as a result.
“Stuff we were sending was very contaminated and hurting their environment,” Newman said, adding Kitsap’s numbers actually aren’t too bad with just 10% of product being contaminated.
In 2021, Washington state passed a law requiring recycling contamination reduction plans. Kitsap and its cities worked together and decided to no longer accept cartons, frozen food containers or lids, among many other changes.
Newman said certain products are going to have to use recycled materials soon, so brands are going to have to commit more to recycling. It’s really up to them to figure out how to get better participation because “they need to get back the product they need,” she added.
Rather than material recycling, Newman said chemical recycling is becoming more popular. That’s when technology uses heat, chemical reactions or both to break down products like plastic into raw materials for new plastic, fuel or other chemicals.
“Chemical recycling is the next trend. This is going to be the hot topic in recycling in the coming years,” she said.
As for what’s popular now, cardboard and plastic containers are the most valuable items to recycle as those materials are easy to clean, break down and turn into other products.
Paper and metal recycling have been going on for years, but questions remain on if plastic is worth recycling, she said. Only about 10% is recycled, with 40% still ending up in landfills. This state is doing much better, with 28% being recycled.
There are also issues with some plastic end products. Such as, plastic clothing sheds fiber into water, which is a danger to that ecosystem. “It’s something to think about,” Newton said of plastic recycling’s viability.
One thing everyone knows can be recycled is paper. Yet 600 tons of it annually end up in landfills. “We can do better,” she said.
Robots to do the work
Newman said recyclables from Kitsap go to Tacoma to JMK Fibers, owned by Waste Management. Product is sorted then sold to companies that process it into raw materials so it can be turned into another product.
Range said the Tacoma plant has 110 employees, but in the future much of the work will be done by robots and technology with only a handful of employees. He said it’s not the most-pleasant work environment so it’s hard to keep workers.
Range said technology already does most of the sorting, being able to distinguish between the different materials. But people are on the line to pull out contaminated products. Magnets are used to separate metals and vacuums to separate paper.
When items such as aluminum and paper are done being separated they are baled and ready for hauling, mostly to companies in the states. Range said they sell up to 25 million tons of product a year, with 90% going to the end user, rather than a broker.
As for trash, Newman said the last Kitsap landfill was in Bremerton, and it closed in 2002. So Kitsap uses a transfer system.
The state has assigned Waste Management to serve most of Kitsap. There’s also Bainbridge Disposal, and some cities hire their own companies.
Trash goes to the Arlington, OR landfill, which receives 2.9 million tons a year. That site has 120 years of life left, Newman said. “It’s the gold standard as far as landfills go,” she said, adding gases are captured to create energy.