Paper is one of the most common recyclable commodities. It alone makes up about 11% of Washington state’s waste according to the Department of Ecology’s waste composition studies, so there’s plenty of it to be recycled. However, paper products like disposable coffee cups, shelf-stable milk cartons, and refrigerated milk cartons are not recyclable, and they’re considered a source of contamination in our single-stream recycling bins. If paper is a material that we use quite regularly, and if other types of paper are accepted in our recycling bins, why can’t we recycle coffee cups and cartons?
The process of recycling paper is straightforward: discarded paper is turned back into pulp and processed into new paper. Brighter, office-quality paper is more difficult to create from recycled paper because it requires a more “pure” source of recycled pulp, but there’s demand for paper of all qualities, and recycled paper products can easily be used for things like egg cartons, cardboard, insulation, and even coffee filters. Paper relies on fewer non-renewable resources than plastic does—the fibers paper is made of literally grow on trees, whereas plastics are made from oil that is non-renewable.
Though paper does an excellent job for most of its uses, it doesn’t do a great job of being waterproof. You don’t want your hot coffee seeping through your cup, and you don’t want your milk carton becoming mushy and falling apart. To avoid this mess, packaging manufacturers line paper food and drink containers with a thin plastic or wax film (and sometimes a tiny bit of aluminum in shelf-stable cartons) that prevents water from absorbing into the paper. The paper creates an inexpensive and sturdy container, and the plastic or wax layer is a cheap and easy way to make it waterproof. The most common items that use coated paper are paper beverage containers, paper cups, and frozen food containers. These containers are cheap to make, lightweight and easy to ship, and have a long shelf life. In theory, it’s a foolproof solution.
The problem with these combination paper and plastic products arises when you want to recycle them. For a commodity to be recycled, it needs to be separated from other types of materials so that it can be processed. Most of Spokane County’s single stream recyclables are sorted into varying plastic, paper, and other material categories at the Waste Management SMaRT center. Here, machines and people divide recyclables into different categories, such as newspaper, cardboard, plastics #1 and #2, aluminum, etc. However, the plastic or wax linings on cups and cartons cannot be separated from the paper material by the SMaRT Center’s technology, and there are not many places that are currently able to process these combination materials. For example, King County accepts these cartons as recyclables, but in Spokane County we do not have industries capable of processing these materials, so they are not accepted in our single stream recycling bins.
Multi-material cartons are not likely to be accepted anytime soon in Spokane County, so if you’re hoping to eliminate non-recyclable waste from your life, it’s best to find alternatives. Make an effort to avoid single-use items, and prioritize buying items in recyclable or reusable containers. Disposable cups can be replaced by water bottles or reusable mugs and tumblers, and look for milk and juice in recyclable plastic containers when possible. When buying paper products, look for items made from recycled paper. Though your purchase may be the proverbial drop in the market’s ocean, if consumers continue to favor items made from renewable and recycled packaging, the market will grow and demand will increase.
The three basic R’s are ordered by importance: Reduce the amount of packaged foods you buy, and you will have less waste. Reuse what you can, and you’ll need to purchase fewer new items. Finally, recycle all that is possible, and when in doubt, throw it out!