“I love talking about trash,” says Jennifer Power. And she’s got the perfect job for that. She’s our tour guide for Seattle’s Recology, a recycling facility or MRF (Materials Recovery Facility).

We were meeting in a large conference room at Recology before the tour to talk about safety and what we would be seeing because once inside the facility it would be too loud for Jennifer to be heard.

 “Has everyone heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch?” she asked passing around a jar of colorful plastic pieces floating in water. It’s the largest accumulation of plastics in the ocean (there are about five of them) and is about the size of the United States, she said. Plastic just keeps breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, but it never breaks down completely. Sea turtles eat the plastic pieces thinking they’re jelly fish. Microplastics are now everywhere, even in the air we breathe.

“They’re accumulating in our bodies and we don’t know what is happening with that,” she added.

So, what could we do? Avoid single use plastic for one and recycle the plastic we do use for another although that’s getting harder, we learned, as more and more plastic is mixed with other materials making it nearly impossible to separate out and recycle.

And did people hear about China not taking our recycling anymore, she asked. While that’s true Recology has found other markets for its recycling in India, Thailand, and the Philippines. And Recology, an employee-owned business, vets these markets carefully to ensure they are recycling, creating materials for new products, and not just dumping our recycling in a foreign landfill.

Cascading and flowing recycling

We put on our yellow vests and hard hats and entered the warehouse. It was loud as Jennifer warned and a surreal landscape of mountains of trash recycling that were being moved around and tumbling down like waterfalls onto conveyer belts that moved all around like rivers. Along the banks, workers stood in protective clothing continuously fishing out anything that didn’t belong. They rotated through jobs at the facility, said Jennifer, never spending more than a couple of hours at one task.

Sorting technology is ever changing with machines that can register what is recyclable and whisk it away. One plastics sorting machine uses lasers to identify the plastic it wants and shoots a gust of air at it to direct it to the proper conveyer belt. Other machines use magnets to pick out the metals.

After the tour, when we got back to the meeting room, there were more questions. One woman from a Capitol Hill artists’ co-op had brought a lunch sack full of items wanting to know what could be recycled. “Careful,” she warned as Jennifer opened the sack.

“I handle trash all day,” scoffed Jennifer, making everyone laugh.

The sack included the plastic pump from a bottle, non-recyclable, and a variety of wrappers made of different sorts of composite material, like mylar, that’s nearly impossible to recycle. The same was true of cosmetic tubes and cases — non-recyclable. A plastic prescription bottle could maybe be recycled at a pharmacy, but no one knew of any that did that. Disappointingly nothing the woman brought was recyclable. “Except,” said Jennifer, “this!” holding up the brown paper bag carrying the trash.

Someone asked how she stayed so upbeat in the face of a topic that seemed as overwhelming and intractable as, well, a landfill.

“If enough people care we can get to a better place to make decisions,” she said. And she sees a lot of hope with the younger generation. Studies have shown that when kids learn something, they can change their parent’s behavior, she noted, better than any campaign. Kids have a shaming effect on their parents – why aren’t we doing this Mom and Dad?

The kids say to her, “We don’t want the turtles eating plastic…”

Our tour was organized by Eastlake resident Olga Lazareva who wrote an article about recycling for the summer edition of the Eastlake News, a community newsletter. More than 12 people signed up for the July 18 tour; the goal was ten. “It was exciting to see that we were not alone in our quest for knowledge, but part of a full room of people who care about our environment and the planet,” said Olga later in an email.

Public tours are offered quarterly at Recology, check out their website.

What you can do:

Compost – this one is huge because food waste in a landfill doesn’t get the air and light necessary to biodegrade. In fact, about the opposite happens. Trashed food adds to climate change by creating methane gas. According to the EPA, “When food goes to the landfill, it’s similar to tying food in a plastic bag. The nutrients in the food never return to the soil. The wasted food rots and produces methane gas.”

And methane gas fuels global warming.

It’s counterproductive to put food waste in the garbage, put it in the compost where it can help rebuild the earth’s soil.

Keep your recycling clean and dry – Paper needs to be clean and dry, as do bottles, cans, and plastics. Please make sure not to leave your paper boxes out in the elements, otherwise, it can’t be recycled. This will make life easier for your recyclers and have the added benefit of keeping your recycling bins clean too!

Know that plastic recycling is complicated (but not impossible!) — not all plastics can be recycled even though they suggest that. But things like vitamin, ketchup, soda, water, milk, and detergent bottles can be recycled (hard plastics) as can plastic flower/plant pots. 

That ubiquitous soft plastic used to wrap water/soda bottles, bathroom tissue, produce, etc. can now be recycled at some supermarket drop off locations. To learn more, check out Plastic Film Recycling at plasticfilmrecycling.org

Buy bath items in bulk – items such as shampoo, conditioner, body wash, soap, bath salts, and lotion can be purchased in bulk at Central Market in Ballard or Aurora and at all PCC markets. Just bring your own container and fill up. Not only are you reducing plastic waste, these brands are also natural and eco-friendly.

Check out Ridwell, at ridwell.com, a new company that provides a recycling service similar to an old fashion milkman. They provide a box and bags for doorstep recycling. And every week pick up used batteries, lightbulbs, threads (old clothing, linen, shoes), and plastic film. They let you know of a rotating fifth category so you can plan ahead such as eyeglasses or wine bottle corks.

Review the guidelines from the city of Seattle “Where does it go?”  The city website has a lot of good information for diverting waste and saving money on your garbage bill. You can find out just about where every item needs to go to be disposed of on this site: seattle.gov/utilities/wheredoesitgo.  

Request a special item pick up Styrofoam blocks and used cooking and motor oil can be picked up for free by the same garbage truck that takes your garbage. Request a special item collection online on http://www.seattle.gov/utilities/services/garbage/garbage-at-home/special-collection, or call 206 684 3000. You’ll put those items on a curbside on the same day your garbage gets collected. 

Donate your clothes – Goodwill, Salvation Army and other places access old clothing and fabric. Let your clothes have a second chance!

Consume less

Aim for zero waste!

Photos by Olga Lazareva and Judy Smith. Sketches by Karen Berry. A longer version of this article first appeared in the Eastlake News fall 2019 edition. Olga Lazareva also contributed to this report.