GarbageGoat_5

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.”

Mar 21

Help! I’m Tangled and I Can’t Get Free!

Posted on March 21, 2019 at 2:03 PM by Austin Stewart

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A major challenge recyclers deal with is tanglers. We’ve discussed before how plastic bags can get wrapped up in the sorting equipment used to separate recyclables, but they’re not the only items tying themselves up and causing frustrating knots. Longer items that are flimsy, strong, and not recyclable in curbside recycling carts are causing even worse tangles that limit productivity and raise the cost of recycling for consumers. 

The items that most often cause tangles in recycling equipment are hoses, ropes, string lights, and clothes. None of these items belong in your curbside recycling cart, and should instead be handled as waste or taken to a designated drop-off spot. Clothes that cannot be donated to a secondhand store can be taken to a textile recycler, and companies like GemTex will recycle them into items such as new textiles and insulation. Ropes, string, and holiday lights should be treated as waste, or search the Spokane Kootenai Waste Directory for an alternate disposal option. 

The dos and don’ts of recycling can feel burdensome and confusing. If you’re getting lost in the details, focus on the basics: paper and cardboard, plastic bottles and jugs, and tin and aluminum cans. When looking at your curbside recycling cart, it might be helpful to imagine those items when they get to the SMaRT center where they are sorted: small and flat items will easily contaminate paper, and long, strong items like string and clothes will cause tangles. Your recyclables should always be clean, dry, and empty, and when in doubt, throw it out!


Mar 14

Why Can’t I Recycle Styrofoam?

Posted on March 14, 2019 at 11:21 AM by Austin Stewart

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What you and I refer to as styrofoam is actually expanded polystyrene (EPS). Styrofoam is the brand name of The Dow Chemical Company’s extruded polystyrene, often used in construction for insulation, which is sturdy and dense. What most people call styrofoam—such as the material take-out boxes and shipping peanuts are made of—is actually expanded polystyrene, and has nothing to do with The Dow Chemical Company’s product. For the purpose of simplicity, we’ll continue to call expanded polystyrene styrofoam here. 

Styrofoam is a type of plastic, but it’s not recycled in many places. Styrofoam products will even have a recycling symbol on them, but this is meaningless to many recyclers who prioritize plastic items that are large, sturdy, and made of high-quality material. In Spokane County, styrofoam products should be placed in your trash bin, unless you are taking it to a designated recycler. (Styrofoam recyclers can be found at spokanewastedirectory.org.) Though there are a few select vendors who accept styrofoam for recycling in our area, it cannot be recycled at any of the region’s transfer stations, where it is treated as garbage. If styrofoam is really just plastic, then why isn’t it recycled at Spokane County’s transfer stations or in curbside recycling containers? 

Though styrofoam is a plastic, it is mostly made of air. To make styrofoam, hard polystyrene beads are heated with steam or hot air until they begin to expand, eventually expanding to more than thirty times their original size. This expansion means that styrofoam makes a lot of material while using relatively little plastic—a wonderful feat if you’re trying to create a lightweight and insulating material. When you’re trying to recycle a material, however, you want to be as efficient as possible and generate new materials without investing a lot of energy. Because styrofoam creates a large mass of material with very little plastic, it becomes energy-intense to transport and melt it back down to make new materials. 

To recycle styrofoam, you need an extruder that will melt it down to a solid material. The nearest facility that can do this is on a commercial scale is in Renton, WA. When styrofoam goes through this process, it is reduced to about 1/90th its original volume. So, if we were to fill up a whole 2,694-cubic foot semi-truck with styrofoam, it would only yield about 30 cubic feet of recycled material. Realistically, packing a whole truck with a very lightweight material, transporting it several hundred miles away and only getting about 1% of the original volume in recycled material, is hardly worth it financially or environmentally—it would be like shipping air!

In addition to the inefficient nature of recycling styrofoam, it is also difficult to sort in our local recycling facility. Styrofoam’s lightweight nature makes it challenging for machines and operators to pick it out from other materials, and it becomes a pesky contaminant that slows down the recycling process and limits efficiency. 

There is good news, however. It may be disappointing to have to throw away a material that is indeed recyclable, but in Spokane County most garbage is sent to the Waste to Energy Plant. At this facility, trash is incinerated at temperatures well over 2,000°F, ensuring that materials such as styrofoam are burned completely, and minimal pollutants are released. Burning styrofoam at temperatures below 1,800°F can release toxic and harmful gasses, but temperatures and chemical treatment processes at the Waste to Energy Plant prevent this pollution from being released into the air. 

On a larger scale, many people are working to limit the use of styrofoam in our daily lives. Though it is an excellent material for insulation and lightweight packaging, the difficulties it poses to recycling and the harmful environmental toxins related to its production and eventual degradation have lead cities in the US to restrict its use. San Francisco, for example, has some of the toughest legislation, nearing an almost complete ban on the material for use in food packaging. 

A state-wide or regional ban on styrofoam is not likely to happen soon in our area, but you can reduce the amount of it in your life through several simple steps. When shopping online, prioritize retailers that do not use styrofoam packaging. At restaurants, ask if there are alternative take-out containers to the typical styrofoam varieties, or bring your own. Refuse styrofoam cups when possible, buy eggs in paper cartons, and choose paper plates if you need disposable dinnerware. 

As always, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. And when you’re unsure if an item is recyclable, follow the motto: “When in doubt, throw it out!”

Mar 07

Why can’t I recycle plastic bags?

Posted on March 7, 2019 at 3:13 PM by Austin Stewart

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As we’ve discussed before, recycling plastic is not a straightforward process. There are many variables that make recycling plastic challenging, such as different types of plastic, the way we sort our plastic, and the available markets for our recycled plastic. A common item that is not accepted in Spokane County’s curbside recycling bins is plastic bags. We use these bags almost every day, they’re recyclable, but in Spokane County they’re considered a contaminant in our commingled, or single stream recycling bins. If a material is so prevalent and made of a recyclable material, then why can’t it be put in your recycle bin?

The problem with plastic bags is similar to the lid situation—they are difficult to sort. Just like lids, thin plastic bags are hard for machines to differentiate from other flat items like paper and cardboard, and they become contaminants for those commodities. Bags can also become tangled in the machinery that sort recycling materials, wrapping themselves around moving parts and tying up equipment. At Waste Management’s SMaRT center in Spokane, machines have to be shut down about every two hours simply to remove tangled plastic bags that are causing clogs. This wasted time limits productivity and increases maintenance costs, which ultimately shows up on the bills that residents pay.

Plastic bags are made from a lower quality plastic than items like sturdy plastic water bottles, laundry detergent bottles, and other hard plastic containers. Lower quality items are harder for recyclers to make a profit from, and so there is less incentive for a recycler to find a way to sort the bags from other plastic materials. Recycled plastic bags are often made into things like synthetic lumber, plastic furniture, insulation, and plastic fibers like polyester for textiles, but they are rarely turned into the same quality of plastic again because they are difficult to process without losing material quality. 

The problems caused by plastic bags do not make them unrecyclable, but require us to keep them separate from our other recyclable materials. Many local retail outlets like grocery and hardware stores have bins specifically meant to handle plastic films and bags. These single-category recycling bins make it easier for recyclers to have a pure source of the material, and eliminate concern about contamination. If you have plastic bags, it is much better to recycle them at stores with plastic bag bins than throw them away. You can find your closest plastic bag recycling drop-off location using Spokane Kootenai Waste Directory or by searching “plastic bag recycling” online. Some places, such as Lowe’s or Home Depot, also have bins for other items like CFL light bulbs and batteries. These items can also be taken to your local transfer station.

When recycling, it’s best to focus on the basics: paper and cardboard, plastic bottles (#1 and #2), and tin and aluminum cans. These materials alone make up a majority of our waste, and can significantly offset the amount of trash we send to the incinerator or landfill. Always ensure your recyclables are clean, dry, and empty, and if you’re unsure about an item’s recyclability, follow our motto: “When in doubt, throw it out!”