Methow Valley operators adjusting to differences in technology, demand
By Marcy Stamper
When you bring your recycling to the curb or take it to Methow Recycles in Twisp, where it goes next depends on technology in Seattle and Spokane, and on complex financial markets as far away as China.
Some of these factors benefit local waste management, like a new deal with a company in Seattle that turns glass from the Methow Valley into more glass. And a high-tech facility in Spokane sorts mixed bales into paper, plastics and metal for processing.
But global pressures are also making the market for recyclables increasingly difficult, with China tightening its requirements for recyclables. That has a big impact, because China is still the biggest consumer of post-consumer waste, and North America is still the biggest producer, said Betsy Cushman, executive director of Methow Recycles.
“We’re shipping glass to Seattle to become more glass — turning it into glass is a first for Methow Recycles. We have been piloting this program for a while, and we’re now declaring victory,” said Cushman. “Everything else has been a variation on reuse, as reclamation fill in a gravel pit or as sand on trails.” In the past year, Methow Recycles sent two truckloads of glass to the Seattle facility, where it’s sorted by color using optical scanners and made into new bottles.
The Spokane Materials and Recycling Technology Center (SMaRT), a state-of-the-art facility that opened in 2012, made curbside collection of mixed recyclables here possible, said Casey Bouchard, general manager of WasteWise Methow, which now has about 250 recycling customers.
WasteWise charges customers for hauling and pays Methow Recycles to process and bale the loads. The commingled bales are sent to SMaRT, where magnets and high-tech optical scanners send targeted puffs of air to propel paper, plastics and tin cans into the right bin. That allows Methow recyclers to toss most of their recyclables into a single receptacle, said Bouchard. WasteWise recycled about 150 tons of commingled materials last year.
“It uses humans and equipment and ladders and conveyor belts — it’s almost like a Dr. Seuss contraption,” said Cushman. But if contaminants like plastic bags are mixed in with other recyclables, it can bring SMaRT’s process to a halt, because the bags get wrapped around the machinery and everything has to be shut down to remove them, she said.
Recyclers in the Methow are pretty knowledgeable, bringing in stuff that’s clean and well sorted, said Miles Milliken, operations manager for Methow Recycles. That means the “contamination” rate — nonrecyclable items mixed in with the good stuff — is only 3 percent here, quite low for U.S. recyclers, he said.
But stringent new requirements imposed by China last year make even that low level of contamination six times too high. The change has everyone in the recycling industry crunching the numbers to see if they’ll have to raise costs, said Cushman. The SMaRT facility has had to add workers and slow down their process to meet China’s stricter requirements, she said.
Already, recycling costs two to two-and-a-half times more than taking garbage to the landfill, where you can dump a ton of trash for $74, said Bouchard. WasteWise gets a check from SMaRT a few times a year, but only for a few hundred dollars, a fraction of their total cost. “We’re not making money on recycling, but with the fees, we’ve made it work,” he said.
As a nonprofit with a small staff, lots of volunteers and grants and donations, Methow Recycles is able to earn some money on everything but glass, said Cushman.
Simplifying the process
The tighter global standards have made Methow Recycles and WasteWise look for ways to make it simpler for people to know what they can and can’t recycle, which should also increase the value of their product.
So they no longer talk about those little triangles with tiny numbers. Instead, they ask, Does it have a screw top? If so, whether it’s clear, frosty or solid, there’s a bin for it at Methow Recycles, said Cushman.
Plastic items without a screw top — but with a recycling triangle — can go into WasteWise’s mixed recycling or a blue bag. Plastics without a triangle, like toy packaging or big detergent containers — generally larger than 2.5 gallons — have to go in the garbage.
While Methow Recycles and WasteWise are trying to streamline the process, it still requires diligence on the part of the recycler. Some things can only go to Methow Recycles, some can only go in WasteWise’s curbside bins or blue bags, and others — to the disappointment of many “wishful” recyclers — can only go in the trash, said Cushman.
A few types of plastics — clear water bottles, frosty milk jugs, and solid-colored detergent bottles — can go to Methow Recycles. Most others — like yogurt containers and salad boxes, have to be collected by WasteWise or be put in a blue bag. WasteWise can also take milk cartons and juice boxes. The only way to recycle glass is to bring it to Methow Recycles. Special items, like computers and TVs, fluorescent light bulbs, household batteries and inkjet cartridges, are collected at Methow Recycles. They also take scrap metal and aluminum foil.
Plastic bags are getting to be a bigger problem, since most are not recyclable. The only plastic bags and film that can be recycled are clear and stretchy, such as Ziploc bags and bread bags. That means green or white grocery bags and pale-green or yellow bags for fruit and vegetables don’t qualify. “Any tint or color is straight-up garbage,” said Bouchard.
WasteWise has tried to make it easy for their customers by putting stickers under the lids of its bins. And every container, box and bag gets unpacked and examined by the WasteWise crew to look for contaminants, said Bouchard.
Because WasteWise services many second homes, they find people often follow the same practices as in Seattle, where you can basically dump everything in one big bin, said Bouchard. After a holiday weekend, WasteWise’s crew may encounter a tidy pile of bottles — or even broken appliances. “Maybe they’re hoping we’ll change our mind and take it anyway,” said Bouchard.
What happens to all that stuff?
Metal and glass have the best outcome, because they can be made into more metal and glass. Glass is one of the few commodities that can be recycled indefinitely, said Cushman. “It uses energy, but it comes out way ahead,” she said, pointing to research that shows glass can be trucked up to 1,300 miles for recycling before it uses more fuel than reprocessing it.
Paper gets made into more — but lower-grade — paper (from office paper to cardboard to toilet paper) until the fibers are too short to hold together at all, said Milliken. Even with that degradation, paper can be recycled up to seven times.
Plastics are generally turned into park benches, plastic lumber, and even corks for wine bottles. Clear plastic bottles become fleece. Milk bottles turn into laundry jugs. Tin cans are made into building materials and rebar.
But even the purest stream of recyclables isn’t a solution, said Milliken. People need to remember that of the three Rs — reduce, reuse and recycle — recycling is the last resort.
Methow Recycles has several other ways to keep things out of the waste stream. 2 Good 2 Toss is a website with everything from turntables to pet supplies to bicycles. The organization recently launched the periodic Repair Café, where a vacuum cleaner, sweaters and an antique waffle iron all got a new lease on life last week. They’re also working on an exchange for building materials and a lending library for tools.
In a partnership with WasteWise, the Winthrop Chamber of Commerce is funding new recycling bins in town — with a Western design — this spring.
“However it gets to Methow Recycles is fine. What’s important is that it actually is recyclable. If you’re not sure, please ask — you can call or email. If in doubt, throw it out,” said Milliken.