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China’s recycling clampdown has hit Thurston County, so fewer items should go in the bin

Are you good at recycling?

A program designed to improve the city of Olympia's recycling has interns from The Evergreen State College peeking in bins to remind customers what should instead go in the garbage can.
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A program designed to improve the city of Olympia's recycling has interns from The Evergreen State College peeking in bins to remind customers what should instead go in the garbage can.

By now you’ve probably heard the story: Starting in 2017, China cracked down on imports of recyclables, leading to a backlog of items with nowhere to go. Cities across the U.S. started sending recyclables to landfills, leading some to declare the end of recycling.

Dave Claugus has a different take.

Claugus is vice president of Pioneer Recycling Services, which processes recyclables picked up at homes in Thurston County. He is hopeful these tumultuous times will force improvements at facilities like his and innovations in how we reuse materials.

“I think when we get through this to the other side a few years from now, we’re going to have a stronger, more capable processing structure and mill structure than ever before,” said Claugus, who has been in the recycling business nearly four decades.

In the short term, the shake-up in the worldwide recycling market has reached Thurston County. In Olympia, where the city is paying substantially more to deal with recyclables than in recent years, officials are considering changes to what and how the community recycles.

During a recent tour for city officials, Pioneer’s processing facility in Frederickson was shut down for upgrades to its paper-sorting system. Mixed paper and cardboard make up about 75 percent of what the facility takes in.

While it wasn’t running, truckloads of recyclables were still coming in. Outside, bales of unsorted materials waited to be processed; inside sat a two-story-tall pile of unsorted cardboard, paper, plastic and glass. Claugus said separating the materials is like trying to unscramble an egg.

Two years ago, two-thirds of Pioneer’s sorted materials went to China. The bulk of China’s import changes went into effect Jan. 1, 2018, and by Jan. 2, all of Pioneer’s orders there had been canceled. It took weeks to line up new buyers, Claugus said, and they weren’t paying anywhere near the prices China was.

That trickles down.

Olympia, the only city in Thurston County that runs its own curbside recycling program, spends about $800,000 a year to transport recyclables to Pioneer and have them processed. In the past, most of that was offset by revenue from the sale of those materials, which netted as much as $660,000 a year. Since the market dropped, that is down to about $80,000.

Recycling has always been a dynamic market, but this is extreme, said Gary Franks, Olympia’s waste resources director.

“If you go back and look at the market, it has never done what it has done. It’s almost like the economy crashing,” he said.

Olympia City Council has scheduled a study session Sept. 17 on changes to how the city handles recyclables. One possibility is changing how it collects glass, which makes up more than 20 percent of recyclable materials collected in Olympia. Glass is heavy (thus expensive to transport, since the price is based on weight) and a sorting nightmare, with broken bits that get mixed up with other materials.

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Items currently accepted under Olympia’s curbside recycling program. Courtesy City of Olympia

A 2010 report on commingled recycling in southwest Washington by the state Department of Ecology recommended collecting glass separately since broken glass cannot be turned into new glass containers or for use in fiberglass. In fact, currently none of Olympia’s glass is turned into new glass containers. Instead it is sent to a landfill to cover up waste. (Landfills must apply a daily cover to prevent odors and trash from blowing away.)

Pioneer and LeMay Pacific Disposal, a private hauler that serves the bulk of Thurston County households and transports Olympia’s recyclables to Pioneer, have asked Olympia to pull glass out of its single stream. (LeMay Pacific collects glass separate from other recyclables; see accompanying box for changes on its end.)

Pioneer also has asked the city to remove milk cartons, juice cartons and aseptic cartons from its list of acceptable materials, since they don’t break down at the mill and end up getting thrown away.

Franks said city officials are looking at all materials currently accepted.

So does better recycling mean throwing more stuff away? Maybe, since trucking it up to Frederickson only to have it sorted out of the recyclable stream isn’t exactly efficient.

“It’s taking a long way to the landfill,” he said. “Not only is it costing us in expense, it’s costing us environmentally.”

What’s in the bin?

Speaking of taking the long way to the landfill: It turns out there is a lot in our recycling bins that doesn’t belong there. As the cost of recycling goes up, Olympia is trying to change that.

China’s crackdown was fueled in part by the high rate of contamination in the recyclable materials it was receiving . These days, buyers of recycled materials expect high-quality sorting and minimal contamination, Claugus said.

Currently about 35 tons of the 500 tons of “recyclables” Olympia sends to Pioneer annually isn’t actually recyclable.

The Washington State Recycling Association advises people: When in doubt, don’t err on the side of recycling. Either check the accepted materials list or throw it out.

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City of Olympia intern David Stocks puts an informational placard on a recycling bin along Autumnwood Court in an southeast Olympia. Tony Overman toverman@theolympian.com

Which bring us to a dead-end street in southeast Olympia on a recent Wednesday morning. Recycling carts lined each side of the street, but before the trucks came through to empty them, they needed a checkup.

This summer, Olympia launched a “lid lift” program funded by a two-year grant from the Department of Ecology. Interns from The Evergreen State College have been literally lifting the lids on recycling bins in four neighborhoods and leaving feedback for residents, tags that either say “Your recycling looks great!” or “OOPS!” with hand-written notes on what they are doing wrong.

“Oh, so, single-use (cups), clamshells, more single-use cups,” David Stocks called out to Alex Markley, who logged the findings in an app that tracks type and quantity of contaminant by address.

Before the program started, they hand-sorted recycling from these neighborhoods to gauge contamination levels. In one area off Sleater Kinney Road Northeast, they found 40 percent contaminated.

They planned to do the hand sort again after four weeks to see if the feedback changed people’s behavior.

This was their third time through this neighborhood, and they said bins here already looked better. Still, they saw caps on plastic bottles and glass jars (caps aren’t recyclable), a shipping envelope with bubble wrap, more single-use plastic cups. One bin appeared full of Styrofoam wrapped in plastic. (No, no and no.)

Then there are the not-so-common problem items: They’ve seen bags of pet hair, used diapers, VCR and DVD players. (The county offers free electronics recycling at the Waste and Recovery Center in Hawks Prairie.)

“I think people are just optimistic in the hopes that some components of it can be recycled,” Markley said. “But that’s not necessarily how our recycling stream works.”

Costs for customers

Outside Olympia, private hauler LeMay Pacific Disposal does all other residential recycling in Thurston County. District manager Jeff Harwood says for now the company isn’t considering changes to its accepted materials list.

But LeMay Pacific customers will have seen “adjustments” on their bills that can be traced back to China’s regulatory changes.

In the past, customers got a credit on their bill in line with the value of recyclable materials. That credit has gone into negative territory as values declined.

“It was probably nickels and dimes in early (2018). Now it’s dollars,” Harwood says.

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