Long known as the Evergreen State for its abundance of coniferous forests, Washington is becoming increasingly green in other ways as well. Some of the most significant advances are in the area of recycling, which is creating a more sustainable society by keeping waste out of landfills. In fact, the percentage of municipal solid waste that is recycled or otherwise diverted from disposal is at its highest levels ever in Washington state, at 57.2 percent in 2011, according to the Washington Department of Ecology, which began tracking recycling rates in 1986. Of this solid waste, 50.7 percent is recycled, while the rest is diverted in other ways. This is well above the national average for solid waste diversion, which stood at 34.1 percent in 2010 according to the most recent figures available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Making new products from recycled paper, plastic, glass, and metals not only keeps this waste out of landfills and conserves natural resources, it also uses significantly less energy than producing new products from raw materials. In Washington, the amount of energy saved through recycling compared to creating new products is equivalent to 1.1 billion gallons of gasoline – enough to power 1.2 million homes (nearly half the state’s households) for a year.
In addition, this lower energy use translates into reduced greenhouse gas emissions. In 2011, recycling in Washington kept 3.2 million tons of greenhouse gases (about 798 pounds per person) out of the atmosphere – equivalent to keeping 1.9 million cars off the road. By keeping harmful materials out of incinerators and landfills recycling also reduces the amount of pollution entering the air and water. Finally, recycling creates more jobs than traditional waste disposal.
RESIDENTIAL RECYCLING TRENDS
Ecology data from 2012 show that 87.4 percent of Washington residents have access to curbside recycling. Most residents who do not have curbside recycling services have access to dropoff locations. Washington residents recycled more household waste than ever in 2011 – more than 186,000 tons – while the amount of waste ending up in landfills dropped to a 24-year low.
The economic recession has had a significant impact on Washington’s recycling rate by reducing general consumer purchasing – avoiding the disposal of products that might otherwise have been replaced – as well as by reducing the amount of debris from construction and demolition. However, a variety of advances in how waste is recycled and the types of materials accepted have also helped boost Washington state’s recycling rate. More than half the growth in overall recycling was due to the increased recycling of metals, while recycling rates also rose for newspaper, cardboard, and electronics.
Moving forward, Washington state’s waste management plan, Beyond Waste, aims to reduce solid waste by 80 percent compared to 2004 levels by 2035. Steps being taken to achieve this goal include reducing waste in product and packaging design; developing new uses for diverted materials such as debris from construction and demolition; maintaining a database about where to recycle (1800recycle.wa.gov or 1-800-RECYCLE); and encouraging product stewardship.
Electronic recycling is one area in which major advances are being made. Many electronic items, particularly computers and televisions, contain toxic materials such as mercury, cadmium, and lead. Recycling electronic products avoids negative public health impacts by keeping this hazardous waste out of landfills and incinerators. It also conserves resources since recycled electronics are broken down into components, many of which can be reused.
E-Cycle Washington is a state program that provides free electronics recycling at dropoff locations throughout the state; in some urban areas, home pickup is also available for a fee. E-Cycle locations accept televisions, computers, monitors, laptops, tablets, and e-readers. In 2012, E-Cycle diverted more than 43.47 million pounds of electronic equipment from the waste stream.
Electronic equipment not included in the E-Cycle program, such as DVD players, VCRs, cell phones, stereo systems, and computer peripherals can often be dropped off at participating locations within King County’s Take It Back Network and similar programs in other parts of the state such as Snohomish and Pierce counties.
HAZARDOUS WASTE DISPOSAL
Electronics are not the only materials that must be disposed of in a safe manner to keep hazardous waste out of landfills. Household hazardous waste includes corrosive, toxic, or flammable materials such as paint thinner, certain types of batteries (including car batteries), and pesticides. It also includes compact fluorescent bulbs, which – unlike traditional incandescent light bulbs – contain mercury and are not permitted in the garbage.
King County has hazardous waste dropoff facilities in North and South Seattle, as well as in Factoria. These facilities accept fluorescent light bulbs and fixtures as well as other household hazardous waste. Alongside its fixed dropoff locations, King County also operates a mobile facility called the Wastemobile, which travels to communities throughout the county and sets up in temporary locations for three days at a time. Fluorescent light bulbs can also be dropped off for free at a variety of locations throughout Washington, including certain locations in King County belonging to the Take It Back Network.
SAFE DISPOSAL OF PHARMACEUTICALS
While empty prescription medicine containers must be disposed of in the garbage because the plastic is too brittle for recycling, medications themselves (both prescription and over-the-counter) are best kept out of the waste stream, where they contaminate soil and water and pose a risk to people and wildlife. A coalition of organizations, Take Back Your Meds, is advocating for a statewide program for the safe disposal of unwanted medications, to be funded by the drug producers. With no such a program in place yet, some local pharmacies and law enforcement offices have stepped up on a voluntary basis as dropoff locations for household medications. However, this solution is temporary and only serves a portion of the state’s population.
A statewide waste composition study conducted by Ecology in 2009 found that organic materials comprised 27.2 percent of the overall waste stream in Washington, more than any other type of waste. Food scraps accounted for 18.3 percent and were the single largest category of waste in the state’s landfills, followed by construction materials (12.8 percent) and paper products (9.8 percent).
The introduction of municipal composting programs has been effective in reducing the amount of food waste sent to landfills. The city of Seattle diverted 125,000 tons of food and yard waste from landfills through composting in 2012. Since 2009, it has been mandatory for all single-family residences to separate out food and yard waste for collection rather than throwing it in the garbage; this requirement was extended to all apartment and condominium residents in 2011.
The city of Olympia included curbside food and yard waste collection in its Towards Zero Waste Plan adopted in 2007 and has made significant strides in diverting such waste from landfills. Voluntary curbside food and yard waste collection is also available in several other cities, including Bellevue, Spokane, and – as of April 2013 – Tacoma.
OTHER WASTE MANAGEMENT INITIATIVES
Seattle has dramatically reduced the amount of waste sent to landfills over the past several years, recycling 55.4 percent of its solid waste in 2011, the eighth straight year this rate has increased. For residences, the recycling rate in 2011 was 60.2 percent, with single-family households recycling as much as 70.6 percent of their solid waste. Seattle Public Utilities has several initiatives in place to promote waste prevention, including an opt-out program for unwanted phone books, composting programs in 10 public schools, and support for various legislative and educational efforts.
Some materials that cannot be recycled through municipal programs can be dropped off with independent recyclers. IKEA and Styro Recycle, both in Renton, accept styrofoam blocks and packing peanuts, which must otherwise be disposed of in the garbage.
Ban on Single-Use Plastic Bags
On July 1, 2012, a ban went into effect in Seattle prohibiting all retail stores in the city from providing customers with single-use plastic shopping bags and requiring them to charge at least five cents for large recyclable paper bags. The goal is to reduce waste by encouraging customers to bring their own reusable bags.
Reusable Materials Exchanges
Numerous Washington counties participate in a reusable materials exchanges such as the King County online exchange and the multi-county exchange 2Good2Toss, in which individuals can list items they want to give away or exchange. King County’s “What do I do with...?” website provides removal and recycling information for an enormous range of household materials.
Recycling has the power to change our lives and communities by conserving natural resources, saving energy, and keeping waste out of landfills, where it not only takes up space but also pollutes the air and water, threatening the health of both human beings and nature. Diverting even the smallest bit of waste makes a difference. It all adds up, with every item that is reused or recycled making Washington – and our lives – just a little more evergreen.
Annika S. Hipple is a Seattle-based freelance writer and editor specializing in travel and sustainability. Her website is www.annikahipple.com.