If you’ve followed along with my series on the three “Rs” —reduce, reuse, and recycle — then you already know that “recycle” is purposely listed as the last option because the other two are better choices. Still, single-stream recycling is a wonderful service that we should take advantage of. As moms, it seems we’re often the ones responsible for understanding what goes in the recycling bin, so it’s helpful to understand what goes on behind the scenes once Waste Management hauls it away.

There’s too much for me to share about this topic in just one blog, but at Sustainable Wenatchee, we’re working on creating a detailed Resource Page that will include a Recycling Guide in the very near future, so keep an eye out for that coming to sustainablewenatchee.org soon. This post is focused primarily on recycling at home, through the provider that most of us use: Waste Management (WM). Also, you’ll find a few tips at the end to learn about other recycling options apart from your curbside bin. 

I like the advice: “don’t be an aspirational recycler.” Meaning, don’t feel so great about recycling that every time you question whether or not something is recyclable, you toss it in and think, “Oh well, it’ll get sorted out if it’s not!” I have been guilty of this myself, but it only causes more work for Waste Management down the line and eventually, it increases the costs to us as consumers of their service. One thing to keep in mind: Even though it might look like it on your bill, recycling is not a free service. The cost of recycling is built into your garbage bill. The option of adding a recycling can at home “for free” is there to encourage you to do so. But we are definitely paying for WM to collect and sort your recyclables. 

I recently had the awesome opportunity to visit the facility where all of our recycling goes, Waste Management’s SMaRT center in Spokane. My tour guide, Steven, helped me understand what some of the myths are about what really happens to our recycled materials. The SMaRT center is at the same time both incredibly high-tech and state-of-the-art, and also extremely dependent on the compliance of the people who send their materials there (often, us moms).

While the SMaRT center is highly automated, there are still people hand-sorting along the way

The most noticeable issue is plastic bags. They tangle up in the machinery and the workers have to stop the sorting multiple times per day to clear it out. Steven said on a good day, it’s only four times, but worst case, it can be about every half hour — up to 20 times per day! Plastic grocery bags and other thin plastic film should never be put in your WM blue bin, but rather taken to one of the several grocery stores in the valley that collect them for recycling. 

Here’s something I heard during the tour that I think is extremely helpful: there is a big difference between what is recyclable, and what is sortable.

Yes, that piece of plastic may have a recycling symbol on the bottom. But can it be efficiently sorted out from the rest of all the other plastic items in the bin? And once it is, is it worth it for a company to buy it from Waste Management and recycle it into something new? The answer to those questions is why even though plastic may have a number 3, 4, 5, 6 or 7 on it, it might not easily be recycled. Plastics #1 and #2 are relatively easy to sort and easy to recycle. Plastic #1 (PETE or PET) is typically clear in color and found in pop bottles, salad dress containers, peanut butter jars and mouthwash bottles. Plastic #2 (HDPE) is regularly colored or white and can be found in laundry detergent bottles, milk jugs, and yogurt tubs. 

However, according to Steven, plastics #3-7 are problematic to sort out, and generally lead to contamination of those “good” plastics (#1 and #2, preferably in bottle shapes). While #3-7 can technically be recycled, the markets for buying them are weak and turbulent. He adds that as a state, 15 percent of what is thrown out as garbage is still paper, including cardboard. So he says, rather than focus in on these confusing plastic details, we’re better off focusing on things that are easy to collect and recycle, like cardboard.

So when possible, it sounds like working to avoid buying products with #3-7 plastics is a good idea. Number 4, low-density polyethylene (LDPE), is found in grocery shopping bags, and can be recycled but again, not through Waste Management (see my tip about grocery store drop-off sites below). Number 6 plastics (polystyrene, more commonly known as styrofoam) is considered difficult to recycle (see my tip about Dolco below) and is also not accepted by Waste Management. 

Here are some tips for recycling… beyond what goes in your blue bin:

  • You likely know that plastic grocery bags should be bundled and taken to the grocery store. But a secret tip is that more than just grocery bags can be recycled this way! In general, the way to know if the plastic film can be recycled along with these bags is that it should stretch, not snap and break. Plastic film that can be included with grocery bags includes newspaper bags, case wrap (like what wraps a case of water bottles), napkin, paper towel, bathroom tissue wrap, bread bags, dry cleaning bags, air pillows (like what comes in boxes when you order something online), food storage bags like Ziplocks, and produce bags. Even some bubble wrap-type packaging from Amazon (see photo) has a symbol on it for recycling it at grocery stores. For more information including drop-off sites, visit plasticflimrecycling.org.

    Some Amazon packaging can be recycled along with plastic grocery bags
  • Sometimes, getting take-out instead of going to a restaurant with kids is SO much nicer. But then you end up with that darn styrofoam. Fortunately, we have a unique opportunity here in the valley to recycle #6 plastic (styrofoam). Take it (clean and dry!) to Dolco, at 1121 S. Columbia St in Wenatchee.
  • All families end up with clothing or other textiles (towels, bedding, shoes, etc) that get stains or holes. Rather than throwing out that stained baby onesie or ratty pair of sneakers, recycle them! It’s extremely easy thanks to the Northwest Center who will even pick them up from your front step. Label them “Thread Cycle” to ensure they are recycled. You can schedule a pick-up by going to bigbluetruck.org or take them to one of many drop-off locations including La Mexicana Supermarket on S Wenatchee Ave, the Senior Activity Center on Maple St, Latino Market Place on Grant Road, Eastmont Metro Parks on Georgia Ave, or at Jerry’s Auto Supply in Leavenworth. 

The overall lesson is, while an item may be recyclable in theory, it might not be a good option in reality. Knowing a little bit about what goes on behind the scenes can help us make smarter purchases, find ways to reuse or reduce instead of recycling, and stop being one of those “aspirational recyclers” who has a blue bin filled to the brim each week.