What is the state of recycling in the Tri-Cities?

Though each of the Tri-Cities offers curbside garbage service, each handles recycling differently.

Pasco, West Richland and greater Benton County (including Finley, Burbank and other Tri-City burbs) are serviced by Basin Disposal Inc. (BDI) of Pasco.

Richland facilitates its own solid waste disposal program and sends its recyclables to Clayton Ward Recycling (CWR) in Richland

Kennewick uses Waste Management (WM).

What’s happening at the local level reflects the state of the recycling industry. And understanding recycling as a global industry can offer explanations about why some items are recyclable while others aren’t, dispel misconceptions and address solutions.

4 cities, 3 service providers

BDI doesn’t offer curbside recycling, but instead accepts certain “streams,” or types of recyclables at drop-off sites around its service area at no additional charge. Some items, such as #1 and #2 plastics, also are accepted but customers must bring these directly to the transfer station.

The city of Richland offers optional comingled (all recyclables go into one 96-gallon tote) curbside service at an additional charge of $7.70 per month for biweekly collection.

The city also offers recycling drop-off locations, which accept a more limited selection.

Curbside compost collection in a 96-gallon tote is included in Richland’s base cost of $17.50 per month for garbage service. Additional recycling or compost totes cost $2 each per month.

WM offers weekly curbside collection in comingled bins as an included part of its garbage service: $14.87 monthly for a 35-gallon tote, or $18.12 for a 96-gallon tote, with no additional charge for extra recyclables that don’t fit in the first bin.

Each collection strategy presents pros and cons, but how each program is administered and what’s accepted has more to do with economics than may be apparent.

Supply and demand

In 2021, over 1,115 tons were collected through Richland’s curbside program and 1,306 tons were collected in Kennewick. Figures for BDI were not available at press time.

Unlike garbage, which is typically landfilled at regional sites, recyclables are sorted (including the different types of plastic) by hand and machine at a material recovery facility (MRF), then baled and sold to processors domestically and abroad.

Previously, over 60% of Washington’s recyclables were shipped to China, according to the state Department of Ecology.

“In 2018, China, the world’s largest importer of recycled material, effectively banned the import of most plastics and mixed paper. This caused a large drop in commodity prices, an increase in transportation costs and significant increases in processing,” said Tami Haggerty, Waste Management’s senior associate of education and outreach for Kennewick.

It was shortly after this that residents started seeing changes to what items were accepted for recycling, as waste haulers scrambled to pivot to domestic buyers.

Accepted items common to all three local programs are aluminum cans, cardboard and plastic bottles and jugs with a neck (those marked with a #1 or #2), which, according to the Washington State Recycling Association, are still in demand by domestic processors.

In a perfect world, everything manufactured would be made with recycling in mind and ultimately sent back to a recycling facility. However, the current system is limited by the individual MRF capabilities of each government-granted company managing waste.

Company size is a major factor in the equation – on one end is a hyper local service provider, city of Richland, and on the other is one of the largest waste collection companies in the U.S., Waste Management.

Waste Management’s sorting line works to separate recyclables. (Courtesy Waste Management)

Gail Everett, communications and marketing specialist and former environmental coordinator for city of Richland, said that Waste Management has more economic resources behind it as a large private company, which enables it to service areawide recycling programs.

It’s more difficult for a public works department-run collector to afford the upfront costs of hiring more workers, buying bins and collection equipment and more to launch a citywide recycling program.

Unlike solid waste disposal, recycling services are limited by how much the hauler can earn from the sale of the recyclables. If there’s no market for materials, then it doesn’t make economic sense for a hauler to collect and process it.

Take glass for example – one of the sustainability movement’s greatest packaging conundrums – the inert material is, like aluminum, infinitely recyclable. Unlike aluminum though, “melting it down takes more energy than it does to create (new) glass from sand,” Everett said.

Hence, most recyclers don’t collect it anymore. The city of Richland still does and Clayton Ward crushes it to sell, but WM and BDI do not.

Meanwhile, there’s a market for certain plastics and cardboard, but not endlessly, as the quality of the material diminishes with each reconstitution until it cannot be recycled any further and is inevitably landfilled.

Solutions

Ignorance and “wish-cycling” are two of the biggest issues that confront recycling programs.

Both translate to contamination and higher costs for recycling processors, with the latter eventually passed on to customers through rate increases. Ongoing contamination may lead to a halt on the collection of some waste streams if customers won’t follow the rules.

Wish-cycling is when a person puts items in a recycling receptacle that either they think should be accepted or they aren’t sure fits within what’s accepted.

Bales of recyclables are ready to be shipped to end markets. (Courtesy Waste Management)

If items aren’t accepted, they will be sorted out and sent to a landfill or be missed and contaminate bales of recyclables.

Non-accepted contaminants such as garbage, plastic bags, plastic foam, packing peanuts and plastic lids/caps frequently jam sorting equipment, wasting time and increasing operations costs.

When in doubt, check your waste hauler’s website for guidance.

Jason Markee, director of operations at BDI, said change is coming to Washington in the form of legislation that might pave the way for mandatory curbside recycling services statewide.

“There are more and more people coming from Seattle, Portland and California, and that’s what’s driving a lot of those discussions,” he said.

Change on the systems level will make recycling easier and more accessible to all, but it’s not just companies and unincorporated municipalities or even the manufacturers of product packaging that need to be mandated to adapt.

“We have to reprogram ourselves,” Everett said. “Not about recycling, but changing how we generate waste – looking for less packaging, considering whether it can be reused or recycled, or can I buy it in bulk, etc.”

She continued, “Just one example: a woman will spend $40 to get her nails done, but won’t take the responsibility and spend the money to dispose of items she invested in.

“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It’s the last resort, that’s why it’s listed last.”

 

Recycling resources

Basin Disposal Inc.: 509-547-2476; basindisposal.com

City of Richland: 509-942-7700; bit.ly/RichlandRecycling

Clayton Ward Recycling: 509-375-4086 (Richland); 509-582-8277 (Kennewick); claytonwardrecycling.com

Waste Management: 509-586-7555; wmnorthwest.com/kennewick

E-Cycle Washington: ecyclewa.org (for broken, obsolete, or worn-out electronics)

State recycling resources: ecology.wa.gov/Waste-Toxics/Reducing-recycling-waste

Terracycle.com and 1800recycle.wa.gov (800-732-9253) offer a by-item search tool for additional recycling outlets.

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