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A large pile of recyclables forms where arriving trucks dump the materials before they are sorted on Friday, October 26, 2018, at Cascade Recycling Center in Woodinville. 
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A large pile of recyclables forms where arriving trucks dump the materials before they are sorted on Friday, October 26, 2018, at Cascade Recycling Center in Woodinville.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Seattle is really good at recycling. Maybe a little too good

At a recycling plant in Woodinville, a group of KUOW listeners watched as glass shards fell into a giant pile.

But it wasn't just glass: wine corks, plastic straws and pencils — none of them recyclable — also poured out.

Karissa Jones, the tour guide, told us there is a term for this: "Wishful recycling."

That's putting something in recycling that doesn’t belong and instead of checking to be sure, crossing your fingers and hoping it belongs there rather than the trash.

“That causes more problems than anything,” Jones said.

Six to eight percent of what comes to the Cascade Recycling Center here is garbage, Jones said.

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Industry-wide, an estimated 20 percent of what we recycle is trash, according to the Washington Refuse & Recycling Association.

That wishful recycling mentality got us in trouble recently. China used to buy recyclables from the U.S., and manufacturers would use the materials to make new things. But too much trash mucked up the materials.

“The quality of the material that we had been sending them was not desirable, much of it was laced with garbage,” said Alli Kingfisher, the recycling coordinator for Washington state. “China wanted to increase the quality of the materials that they were importing.”

Over the past five years, China has put more restrictions on what it will accept. Then, last January, the Chinese government banned some materials, like mixed office paper and several types of plastics. The recycling industry has scrambled to find new buyers for these materials.

To be clear: Seattle's recycling rules haven't changed. They are the same today as they have been for years, but we don't follow them.

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KUOW listeners have asked many questions about recycling over the years: How are mixed recyclables sorted? How clean is *clean* for cans and bottles? What’s happening in the global market for recyclables?

We brought twelve of these curious people to Woodinville for a tour of the plant.

Lisa Siegel, one of those on the tour, said she used to be "real self-righteous about the fact that we recycled so much more than we put in the garbage can.”

The tour was eye-opening: “There's a tremendous amount of stuff that does not get reused and we could reuse it better,” she said.

Kingfisher, the state recycling coordinator, said no one should be too smug about their recycling. “Recycling is only one step above disposal,” she said.

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Don't get her wrong: recycling is important, but it's not the end-all-be-all of green living.

“If you really want to increase your overall environmental impact, try to reduce or reuse before you even get to the recycling part,” Kingfisher said.

The Chinese ban prompted recyclers to look for others to buy our recycling, and they've had success. Some paper got wet and had to be chucked, but the industry has gotten creative. It's not ideal, though, because they're so much smaller than China, and can't take as much material.

And they, too, are getting picky.

“Some of those markets are starting to demand more quality materials, similar to China," she said.

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This is partly because recycling is confusing, said Brad Lovaas, executive director of the Washington Reuse and Recycling Association.

“It's gotten too complicated for the people when they go to the recycling bin," Lovaas said.

Recycling rules vary by city. East King County is different from Seattle, for example ... even though that recycling ends up at the same sorting facility.

That's because cities and counties write their own lists for what can be recycled.

Even so, Lovaas said, “Find out what your community allows to go into the recycling bin, and only put those materials in and only put in things that are clean, empty, and dry.”

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That means no empty, greasy pizza boxes. No wet paper or jars. And PLEASE no garden hoses, he said.

And plastic baggies are the worst. The Seattle Public Utilities says you can recycle "plastic bags bagged together" but ...

Loose plastic bags can wreak havoc, "Please don't," said Karissa Jones, the recycling plant tour guide in Woodinville.

“They actually wrap around the sorting equipment and cause the machinery to break down, and people have to actually stop everything and climb onto the equipment and pull it off by hand,” she said.

Instead, Jones recommends taking the plastic bags back to a grocery store for recycling.

The recycling industry wants to get rid of that wishful recycling.

The way they want you to approach your blue bin is A LOT more work than just throwing something in there. So that means getting ALL the peanut butter out of that jar, washing it with soap, then drying it on a dish rack or with a towel, THEN put it in the recycling bin. (I know.)

Food and water can ruin other recyclables, like paper, turning them moldy.

We have to rethink your role in this, the experts said. Because it begins with us.

“You're the first step in the manufacturing process," Kingfisher said.