By The Herald Editorial Board
If you’ve wonder what happens to a glass jar, an aluminum can, a plastic milk jug and this newspaper — once you’ve read it — after you’ve tossed it in your curbside recycling bin, it all has a rough ride ahead of it on a maze of conveyor belts at the Cascade Recycling Center, WM’s (formerly Waste Management) recently upgraded processing center in Woodinville.
Following a $34 million upgrade at the 82,000 square-foot facility, the center has increased its capacity by 50 percent and is now capable of processing up to 650 tons of co-mingled recyclables each day, enough to handle planned growth in the region and a changing mix of recyclable materials. Even at that square footage, the network of clattering conveyor belts, sorting equipment, computer monitors and catwalks literally pack the building to its rafters. The Cascade upgrade is part of a $65 million investment by WM in the state that includes similar work at facilities in Spokane and Tacoma, and more than $1 billion in work nationwide into 2026.
The investments are meant to increase capacity and improve the quality of recyclable material, keeping more of the non-recyclable “contamination” from the bales and containers of recycled material, improving its value and marketability for use in new packaging and other products and — most importantly — out of landfills and the environment as intended.
Among the more remarkable inner workings of the facility is the equipment that identifies and sorts the co-mingled recycling on its conveyor-belt journey, explained Rob Jones, the center’s recycling director and Todd Vaught, plant manager. Optical scanners, which increased in number at the plant from one to 15 in the upgrade, identify the different types of material, then divert items into different processing streams. For plastic bottles and jugs and aluminum cans, puffs of air are blasted at the items to send them on the right path, Vaught explained. A magnetized metal drum, picks up and drops food cans onto its belt. Rotating toothed drums catch and crush glass for collection below.
In all, 14 to 15 workers, most of them mechanics and operators, oversee the facility each shift; only four to five workers manually pick larger materials out of the line, such as plastic sheeting and other large pieces of unrecyclable material.
In all, the process is able to remove an estimated 10 percent to 15 percent of unrecyclable material from the end product, Jones said. Facilities in other states, he said, see closer to 30 percent and higher of unwanted material requiring removal.
But even that low percentage of unrecyclable material can cause problems for the plant. Jams and other problems can halt the process, Vaught said, sometimes a few times a day. And it’s why WM is asking consumers to step up use of their own “optical scanners” and “sorting equipment” at the front end of the process as items go into recycle bins.
Karissa Miller, Cascade’s outreach manager and recycling educator, said the emphasis is on keeping the unwanted material out of the bins, including food and other waste that should go in compost bins or trash and making sure that what goes in the bins is empty, rinsed out and dry. Labels can stay on cans and bottles, but wet cardboard and paper are difficult to process, she said; so keep the lid shut on your curbside bin.
And pay more attention to the shape of a plastic item than the number on the bottom, Miller said. Anything shaped like a bottle or jug is likely recyclable. Other plastic items, like cutlery, plastic film and plastic bags, aren’t, she said.
Still, the finer points of recycling can be tough to figure out, and has led to the practice of “wishcycling,” tossing items into the bin that consumers hope fit the criteria but often don’t.
Typically, plastic materials are the biggest headache for recycling. U.S. households produced about 51 million tons of plastic waste in 2021, according to a 2022 Greenpeace USA report, yet only 2.4 million tons of that were recycled, about 5 percent to 6 percent of all plastics. Yet, two common types of plastic used for drink bottles (No. 1) and milk jugs and detergent bottles (No. 2) are easily recycled and make up 20.9 percent and 10.3 percent of the recycled stream, respectively.
To help limit wishcycling, The Daily Herald and reporter Ta’Leah Van Sistine are launching a new monthly column, Trash Talk, that will answer readers’ questions about recycling and focus on recycling and waste issues. Email her at taleah.vansistine @heraldnet.com.
As well, expect the state Legislature to take up the issue this year, with bills that were proposed last year but did not advance. The Washington Recycling and Packaging Act (House Bill 1131 and Senate Bill 5154) looks to improve collection of recycling, clarify what can and can’t be recycled, increase options for recycling and establish a deposit-return system for beverage containers.
Plastics do present problems for the environment and in our attempts to recycle it.
A study of plastic recycling at a United Kingdom facility estimated that even recycled plastics eventually end up in the environment and landfills, especially as microplastics, tiny particles of plastics that can collect toxic chemicals, then end up in animals and in humans. Between 6 percent and 13 percent of plastics processed still wound up released into the air or water, the study found.
And depending on the market, recycling plastic isn’t always cost-effective because of the energy required to recycle it; often it’s cheaper to make items from virgin plastic than recycled materials.
That’s not an argument to stop recycling; keeping at least some plastics out of landfills, lakes and seas is imperative. One option that can help is for consumers to look for options that rely less on plastics for packaging. For instance, laundry detergent is now being made as dissolvable sheets, dramatically cutting the need for plastic jugs.
While plastics present a range of challenges, recycling remains a necessary part of the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle “chasing arrows” practice. Done with intention, better information and incentives, it can keep us from trashing the planet.