Garbage Goat

“Hi! I’m GG the Garbage Goat, and I like to talk about trash. On my blog you’ll find interesting bits of information regarding how Spokane County handles its solid waste, how our recycling is handled, and other interesting things about waste. If you have questions about recycling or solid waste, you can contact the Spokane County Regional Recycling Information Line at 509-477-6800, or contact us online.”

Feb 20

Why Can’t I Recycle Coffee Cups and Cartons?

Posted on February 20, 2019 at 2:55 PM by Austin Stewart

GG coffee cups_300

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 and shelf-stable 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!

Feb 20

Why Can’t I Recycle Plastic Lids?

Posted on February 20, 2019 at 2:55 PM by Austin Stewart

                                       gg with bottles_300

You’ve probably heard about China’s changing recycling policy and the ongoing effects it is having on American recyclers. In short, America has historically sent most of its recyclable plastic to China to be processed, and now we have to find industries in the U.S. to do that work for us. The repercussions of these changes are being felt worldwide, and they’re presenting industry leaders with new challenges—challenges that are forcing our recyclers to make changes, be creative, and look for new solutions. 

With a recycling market that is experiencing ongoing adaptation, it’s difficult to know what can be recycled. Each region has its own recycling practices, and even within Spokane County you can find different guidelines for what is and isn’t accepted in your curbside recycling bin. To get to the bottom of these changes, Garbage Goat reached out to Spokane County’s local recyclers to learn more about what is done with our recyclable waste, how different materials are recycled, and what citizens can do to make recycling easier for our local industries. 

You might view plastic recycling as something like this: old bottles, tubs, bags, plastic films, and other plastic materials are sent to recycling facilities, melted down, and then reprocessed into new material that can be made into the same products again. The reality of plastic recycling, however, is much more complex. Plastics are not created equally, and even plastics within the same category might have differences that prevent them from being recycled together. Technical limitations and contamination also make it difficult to maintain plastic quality during the recycling process, and the lifecycle of plastic waste is not a closed loop. It’s easy to toss all your clean, dry, and empty plastics into your recycling bin, but items like plastic lids are considered contamination in our region. So what’s the problem?

Perhaps the greatest limitation to how plastic is recycled is the way we sort our plastic. The machines that sort our commingled (unsorted, or single-stream) recyclables process materials by their shape and density. Flat lids are easily missorted as paper and cardboard and contaminate those commodities, getting into the final bales of paper and cardboard that are sent to paper recyclers. Secondly, small plastic lids, like those on soda bottles, are hard to contain in recycle bins and can become stuck in and damage the machines that sort recyclables, and ultimately become missorted and degrade the purity of other recyclable commodities.
But what if you leave the plastic lid on its bottle or container? The lid will be secure and will easily be sorted while attached to the bottle it came on, right? This may seem straightforward, but Spokane’s recyclers would prefer lids be left off of bottles and containers entirely. When the lids get all the way to the plastic mill, they will be cut off and disposed of as garbage due to the large number of lids that are a different plastic than the bottle. Soda bottle lids are usually made of plastic #5 (or polypropylene) that has a lower recycling commodity market value than the bottles. So leaving a lid on a bottle can actually make it harder for a recycler to properly sort them into different types of plastic and fetch a competitive price. 

Even if the lid and bottle are both plastic #1, they can still have differences between them that limit how they are recycled. For example, many plastic lids are different colors than their corresponding bottles. Though both are made from PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, the pigments added to create different colors give them different material qualities. The same can be said for laundry detergent bottles and milk jugs, which are both commonly made from plastic #2, also known as HDPE or high-density polyethylene. The detergent jug will likely have a color pigment in it while the milk jug is probably opaque, and though they are both plastic #2, this difference is enough to require that they be sorted and recycled apart from each other. 

Recycling changes can be confusing, but industry leaders are working hard to keep the process as simple and effective for everyone. It requires extra effort to sort your recyclables and remove contaminants like lids, but the hard work pays off and makes recycling much easier for the people doing it. As you continue to recycle, focus on the basics: paper and cardboard, plastic bottles (#1 and #2 only), and tin and aluminum cans. Always make sure your recyclables are clean, dry, and empty, and when in doubt, throw it out!