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!