By Becky Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
Paper or plastic? Neither. China doesn’t want our trash. It banned importing of “yang laji,” foreign trash, in January 2018. For years, China was an easy and willing recipient for things the West didn’t want. China’s ban should be applauded as a positive step toward environmental and public health. Processing “yang laji’ created additional pollution on top of what the country is already grappling with. But the ban left the western world, including Seattle, scrambling to find a reliable solution for its recyclables.
A major processor of exported recyclables for decades, China took in about half of the world’s waste paper and used plastic. As the world’s most populous country becomes more prosperous, it is generating enough of its own “laji,” or trash, to support a vibrant domestic recycling industry. China also posts stricter contamination standards for what it now accepts in recyclables—a standard too high for most countries to meet. Without a viable market, some cities in the United States discontinued recycling all together.
Hardly anyone in Seattle noticed any difference.
Seattle Public Utilities(SPU)’s Becca Fong, solid waste outreach planner, wants the public to know the city continues to contract Republic Services to sort its recyclables while searching for other markets to buy it. No recyclable is landfilled. However, it is a new day for recycling in Seattle.
Recyclables are commodities, commanding premiums not only in dollars but also in resources being used or extracted to manufacture the goods. Recycling is not simply putting everything plastic or paper in the big blue bin. In waste management, it’s called “aspirational recycling.” You got rid of it, felt good, and believed it will be recycled.
The five recyclable categories are paper, cardboard, plastic bottles and containers, glass bottles and jars, and metal cans. Plastic and paper are affected by the China ban.
Before the ban, Republic would bundle mixed-papers, such as office papers, newsprints, and magazines, together at the Material Recovery Facility (MRF) on 3rd and Lander
and sold all of it to China.
“Now, Republic separates papers into like items at the sorting facility. It is more valuable if separated,” says Fong.
According to SPU’s website, over 50 percent of the mixed-papers and cardboard is processed in Eastern Washington. The other 50 percent is exported to Southeast Asia; the country varies from month to month, dependent on market rate.
All of the metal is recycled locally. Same with glass.
Fong said Seattle is fortunate to have the infrastructure to recycle all of the glass collected and remakes them into new bottles locally, just south of downtown. The closed-loop eliminates the hefty transportation cost other cities incurred in recycling the heavy material. Although extracting silica from earth to make glass is energy intensive, glass is almost 100 percent recoverable, unlike plastics.
Different types of plastics have a combination of properties that make them challenging to separate. Plastics are desirable because they’re light and defy environmental degradation. They last a long, long time. It’s a love-hate relationship. The convenience and durability of plastic is undeniable. Even if you don’t litter, the empty yogurt cup will still be around somewhere.
Fong said 40 percent of Seattle’s mixed plastics are sent to British Columbia. The other 60 percent ends up overseas.
SPU used to accept a higher level of contamination in recyclable material. No more. The spoonful of yogurt left in the cup renders the entire batch of recyclables unacceptable, sending it to landfill where it will sit for many decades.
Fong asks customers to use the proper bins and make sure their recyclables are empty, clean, and dry. They should be loose, not bagged in plastic since the bag can jam up the machines. The bag can also be confused as trash. If in doubt, find out via seattle.gov/utilities/services/where-does-it-go.
SPU urges its customers to: 1) Reduce waste by bringing reusable bags/containers when shopping; 2) re-use items by shopping at online exchanges or thrift stores; and 3) recycle by ensuring “trash” items go into the right bins.
“We need to take personal responsibility when consuming, buy products that have less environmental impact when they are produced,” says Fong. She added that figuring out small solutions that works rather than trying to do it all is less overwhelming.
She recalled that one day while at Dim Sum King in the Chinatown-International District, an elderly lady in line brought her own container for take-out, reducing plastic consumption. It didn’t matter that it may not have been her original intent. She was being mindful. “It takes everybody,” says Fong.
April Dickinson can relate. A member of the Facebook group Seattle Zero Waste, Dickinson is a self-proclaimed “zero-waste dork.” Besides bringing her own glass and stainless-steel straw when she craves a hot bubble-tea, Dickinson, who is half-Chinese, refuses to buy items wrapped in plastic. She admitted to occasionally succumbing to glutinous rice balls for sweet soup, which is always triple-packaged in plastic.
With almost 1,700 members, the zero-waste group share sustainability tips, expand ideas in reducing waste, and act in concert to have a stronger voting voice.
Becky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.