Curbside recycling program saves costs, keeps contaminants low

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If you’ve ever thought about recycling a Pringles can or a juice carton in Whatcom County, think twice. Recycling and safety manager Rodd Pemble of Sanitary Service Company said the public may not know that these items cannot be recycled because they contain metal and plastic linings.

Most recycling programs send recycled material down a conveyor belt and start sorting out one material stream after another. In Whatcom County, sorting is also done by hand.

Northwest Recycling general manager Marty Kuljis said mechanical conveyor belts, similar to those seen in grocery store check-out lines, transfer materials and a magnet removes steel, such as cans. The remaining plastic, aluminum and glass are sorted manually by human workers. The two-stream process allows for other recyclables, such as paper and cardboard, to be put onto a separate conveyor belt and baled.

Whatcom County is different from other counties, with its curbside sorting recycling program. Most communities in Washington have commingling recycling programs, meaning items are all thrown into one big recycling bin.

Thanks to the curbside recycling sorting program in Whatcom County, contamination levels are kept low, at half of one percent. Depending on the program, commingling programs have a greater chance of contamination of recyclables at five to 25 percent, Pemble said. Contamination occurs when recyclables are not kept empty, clean or dry, and also when non-recyclable items, such as broken glass, are recycled.

Costs are also kept lower with Whatcom’s curbside sorting, although they have been affected by the recent shift in markets. A few years ago, a new Chinese policy set the standard by banning the import of recyclables from foreign markets because of the level of contaminants found in some of them. With this change, Pemble said other markets in the world could afford to be choosier about the amount of contaminants they receive, and the price they’re willing to pay.

“What we see on the horizon is some period of time where these markets continue to adjust to the changes that come,” Pemble said. “There will probably be modest price fluctuations. It just won’t be as dramatic as the commingle programs have experienced.”

Many of the items recycled in Whatcom County go to domestic markets, despite the changes in China. Paper, for example, is sent to Wenatchee, and some recyclable plastics are sent to the western U.S. Cardboard is sent to mills in Longview and Port Townsend.

“We’re in a better position because we have different markets,” Kuljis said. “Our materials have been historically cleaner than most.”

At the Blaine City Council meeting on September 9, Pemble shared the positive results their curbside sorting efforts have reaped for the past 30 years.

“That’s why we always cheer the people in the community,” Pemble said. “Most of the work is being done by citizens and businesses and schools. Not every community has curbside [recycling] in any form.”

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