Recycling surges in Methow Valley
By Natalie Johnson
This time last year, Missy LeDuc and her employees at the Mazama Store had completely eliminated disposable coffee cups — training customers to remember their reusable mugs or to borrow one from the store after leaving a deposit.
COVID-19 turned that strategy on its head.
“I’m really bummed, because we had 100% participation from our customers and employees in not using disposable cups for coffee,” LeDuc said. “And then COVID hit and we had to immediately change our strategy and go with what people felt comfortable with.”
Now, about 90% of customers get disposable coffee cups. It’s not ideal, LeDuc said, but at a time like this, the safety of her staff and customers comes first.
Last February was also the second year of Methow Recycles’ Plastic Free February challenge, another initiative to reduce waste in the first place, rather than having to recycle it afterward.
The premise is easy — for the month of February, stay away from single-use plastic, or new plastic products. Then at the end of the month, staff at Methow Recycles pools their combined plastic waste for the month to see how well they did.
“We just decided, why don’t we challenge ourselves?” said Aspen Kvicala, education and outreach manager for Methow Recycles. “We’re telling people to do this and we’re encouraging people to live this way, how hard could it be?”
It was hard.
“We realized the challenge is pretty much impossible,” she said.
Think of all the things you buy that have plastic containers — Kvicala mentioned blocks of cheese and trays of meat. Most milk and many juices also come in plastic containers. We even buy fruit and vegetables in plastic bags.
“It’s ubiquitous. And it’s cheap to manufacture,” said Brent Nourse, recycling program manager and business manager at Methow Recycles. “What we’re really trying to do is get people to understand the cost of using single use plastics, the cost of using the plastic takeaway items and to recognize how insidious it is in everything we do. Every time you buy that new toaster instead of just repairing it, you’re incurring additional material, the packaging, the plastic and everything else.”
While Methow Recycles is a recycling center, staff in recent years have focused first on reducing waste to begin with through education and outreach.
Pre-pandemic, it was a tough job. When the COVID-19 restrictions began going into effect last spring, the Mazama store wasn’t the only place that reluctantly had to begin producing more waste. Most coffee stands stopped taking reusable cups, and restaurants soon had no way to support themselves without doing takeout exclusively — producing even more plastic waste.
“When COVID first hit, it just kind of felt like all the work we had been doing was being undone in a matter of a week or so,” Kvicala said. “We just did our best to (tell people) in the name of safety, do what you need to do. Don’t be afraid to wear gloves. Health and safety first.”
But it’s not all bad news. There are still small ways to prioritize waste reduction, especially in sustainability-conscious Methow Valley.
“I knew I personally wouldn’t be able to stay away from plastics (this year) I personally viewed it as … what are items I can focus on?” Kvicala said. “Maybe I can buy something in bulk. Just little behavior changes, because if I just try to stay away from it cold turkey it can be really daunting.”
The Mazama Store, as well as other locations such as The Glover Street Market, Hank’s Harvest Foods and Methow Valley Thriftway, offer bulk items that can be packed out in a shopper’s reusable bags or bottles.
“That is where you can make a difference,” said LeDuc, who also offers paper and compostable bags.
Methow Recycles also reports 2020 as a successful recycling year, with a 10% increase in tons of waste recycled over 2019, despite COVID restrictions and being closed for several weeks in March 2020.
“When we reopened in March it was clear that our community had saved all their recyclables until we could reopen,” Nourse said.
Staff attribute that partly to an increase in full-time residents due to the pandemic.
“It’s a little bit anecdotal, but I would tell you people are more mindful about what they’re throwing away and partly because they’re stuck at home,” Nourse said.
Changes Methow Recycles had to make to adapt to COVID-19 have also contributed to a healthier organization and a better product to sell to companies that actually recycle the plastic, paper, aluminum and other products the nonprofit accepts.
Previously, staff would sort and bail recyclables while they were being dropped off. Now, they do those tasks on separate days. They also had to start metering traffic into the facility. The nonprofit also recently began taking donations in the form of annual memberships.
“What we realized is we were getting a lot more facetime with our customers,” Nourse said, which has allowed staff to spend more time educating them about recycling and waste reduction.
“That has resulted in cleaner product,” Nourse said. “Our product is known regionally as the best. And we’re not giving (buyers) waste, we’re giving them a raw resource. Our stuff is starting to go overseas because we’re providing the clean stuff.”
For more information on recycling, visit www.methowrecycles.org .