“Sustainability is a term that gets overused and misrepresented a lot,” said Adam Maurer, the sustainment coordinator here at Seattle Central College since 2016. “It’s the intersection between the environment, economy, and people, and how those things work in partnership with one another.”
Maurer, who earned his Master’s in Environmental Studies from SUNY ESF (State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry) in 2011 says that sustainability is about improving the quality of life within the Earth’s carrying capacity. “It’s less about quantity and more about quality, and definitely about living our best lives, but you must understand that the Earth only has so many resources.”
When you throw something away, what does “away” really mean?
One thing about recycling and waste management that is confusing for people is that it’s municipality-based. What’s recyclable or compostable in the city of Seattle may not be in Renton or Lakewood. Municipalities either contract with subcontractors or haulers and they determine what they can accept by what the facility accepts, which is established by the industry.
In late 2017, China – the world’s largest recyclable material importer – stopped taking recyclables as part of their China Blue Skies initiative. That created a huge need to find new places to send recycling. For Seattle, this meant finding new places to send our mixed paper (magazines, office paper, and newspapers) and mixed plastic (yogurt tubs and to-go containers) that had been going to China.
“One of the reasons China cracked down is that we (the United States) were sending a lot of bad recyclables, things that were contaminated by non-recyclables,” said Maurer. Whether that’s food or liquids, or, for example, a bale of cardboard with a bunch of broken glass in it — contaminated cardboard becomes less valuable. That means the price of recyclables has gone down drastically because there are fewer people to pay for those items. It’s hit the industry hard, and the domestic market is trying to absorb that.
All of the garbage for the city of Seattle gets put on the train and is taken by rail to a landfill in rural Oregon. “Our recycling goes to several different processing plants here, and by a processing plant, I mean a MRF,” (Material Recovery Facility, pronounced merf) said Maurer, addressing one of the common misconceptions people have about recycling.
There’s a flawed idea that there are people in the processing plants taking things apart. Maurer says that’s not the case. “When you put your recycling out on the curb, it goes to a MRF. That MRF is simply sorting the material. There’s a conveyor belt carrying all of the material along through machines; air tumblers to sort different weights of paper, and magnets to separate metals from other parts of the waste stream.”
They’re literally taking whatever you put into your bin and moving it into other bins, putting ‘like’ materials together, baling those up and shipping the bales to a recycler. The recycling facility will then determine what they can do with it; whether to melt it down into plastic pellets or make new paper products out of it.
“Recycling is an industry and a business like anything else, and they can only take in what they can sell,” said Maurer. If they can’t find people who are going to buy their products, then they don’t want to take it in. And if they’re collecting technically recyclable things but they can’t find an end market for, they’re technically on the hook to dispose of a product, and that may be incineration or landfill, both of which are expensive. They can charge for it, but it’s not worth the cost of getting rid of it. They need to sell it to someone to offset the costs. Contaminated materials can quickly become an issue.
“Take your cell phone, for example,” said Maurer. “You’re not supposed to put this in the recycling. There are metals in it, there’s plastic in it – if you put this into a recycling bin, no one’s going to be able to do anything with it as is. The phone could be wiped, recycled, and given to someone in need.”
Empty, Clean and Dry and “Napkin Clean”
If you’re throwing away a half a can of soft drink, Maurer says you need to get rid of the liquid first. “Put the liquid in the garbage, and then the can in the recycling. If you can rinse things out, that’s even better.” Most of the time, people don’t have access to a sink to pour the drink out so it all just goes into the recycling and they forget it. They won’t take the can to the bathroom, pour it out, and then come back.
When you get a plastic food container from a restaurant and you’ve finished your meal, Maurer recommends taking a paper napkin and wiping the container down to get it “napkin clean.” “If you throw food into the recycling, you’re not doing the system any good. You’re contaminating other recycling materials and causing a problem elsewhere. That’s called wishful recycling, and there’s a big difference between responsible recycling versus wishful recycling.”
“When we talk about carbon dioxide, there’s only so much that our plants and oceans can absorb. After that, it becomes an issue. That’s where climate change comes in. We have these resources, and we can use them, but there are repercussions to using those resources.”
We do have a lot of space for landfills, but those are being built further away from cities. Resources are being burned to create an object, which is used once, and then more resources are required to then move that object hundreds of miles away to a landfill. That cycle of use is extremely resource-intensive.
“Landfill technology has come a long way. It used to be just the local dump where a city dug a hole in the ground, filled it up, capped it and called it good, but we’ve moved away from that,” said Maurer. As garbage materials break down, they create a lot of toxic chemicals that get leaked into the groundwater. Think of it as the sludge in the bottom of your trash can when the trash bag springs a leak. There are newer high-tech plastic membranes that do a better job of containing the chemicals, but when membranes fail the leachates seep into the ground. Maurer says the liquids that come from landfills are extremely toxic and expensive to clean, “and the science required to do so isn’t exactly up to where it should be.”
Landfills also release greenhouse gases (GHGs). Some landfills capture some of those GHGs (mostly methane) to make electricity or heat, but not all. Even if they are capturing it, burning methane for electricity and heat releases more GHGs. Hence, GHGs are an unfortunate byproduct of our waste and landfills.
Reduce, reuse, recycle
Buy reusable items versus single-use items. Single-use items do put a strain on the system. “Not only are they not all getting recycled, but think about the resources involved in making that item, getting it to the store, and into your basket for your leisure,” said Maurer.
Think about the oil that’s extracted to make that plastic, which is then transported from somewhere else. The plastic gets turned into a cup or a bottle, filled once for your convenience, used on average for twelve minutes, and then discarded after just one use.
Don’t buy plastic water bottles. Buy a reusable water bottle. Bring your own coffee mug. You can use a cloth bag over and over and cut down on the fossil fuels spent in order to extract the fossil fuels these products are made of.
Don’t put clothing into your curbside recycling. The cloth needs to go to Goodwill. They will determine where that goes, potentially to a developing third world country, or since they’ve partnered with Threadcycle they can break it down and turn it into new textiles.
The city of Seattle is no longer accepting plastic bags because the plastic gets wrapped around machinery and prevents screens from filtering contaminants, according to this October 17, 2019 Seattle Times article. As a result, bags and plastic films have to be cut out of equipment every day. Occasionally, the company has to shut down its facility to cut bags out with box cutters and saws.
Plastic bags for recycling now need to be clean, empty, and dry and they need to go to a specific drop-off location. “Or, you could just carry a cloth bag,” says Maurer.
Some soft drink companies are now selling drinks in a transparent plastic can with a metal top. “No one is going to separate those ingredients from one another, so now that company has effectively created a dead-end waste. Don’t give them your money. Look, ask questions, and speak up with your purchasing power,” said Maurer.
Buy from local businesses so that more money goes into the local economy. Buy things made of recycled products to sustain the recycling system and its market so it can be created and expanded. Buy better quality items, something durable or multi-use. Avoid single-use products. When buying products in the store, ask yourself: “Which of these will have less of an impact on the ecosystem?”
Adam’s main goal as the Sustainment Coordinator is to improve the logistics of the infrastructure and communication, focusing on waste management, bins, signage, and communication, but also to keep SCC focused on state-mandated goals. “The school met (their) mark in 2018 but not in 2019, and so now we want to work to reduce emissions 35% by 2035. Our climate action plan is there to give us the steps needed to meet our goals,” said Maurer.
“Consumption drives climate change,” said Maurer. “Understand that we as individuals will not solve the problem, but we can be role models for those around us, our peers, our children, and our parents. If people see you doing the right thing, they’re more likely to do the right thing. And if everyone does the right thing, we can start to make a difference.”
For those interested in more information, please follow the listed links for more details on recycling in Seattle.