The Changing Face of Recycling

Our collective mistakes when it comes to what we put in our recycling bins have added up to create a global crisis. Here’s a look into how the City of Tacoma is dealing with a complex and unprecedented shift in a decades-old system.

Out on Tacoma’s Tideflats, an enormous building buzzes with near-constant motion.

At JMK Fibers, a 90,000-square-foot recycling facility operated by Waste Management, the items recycled in the South Sound and beyond are processed 18 hours a day, six days a week, by a mile-long maze of fast-moving conveyor belts. The machines range from simple to sophisticated, and the hands of more than 100 employees sort and pluck items from the belts.

The things that speed through the plant range from the expected — aluminum cans, newspapers, milk jugs — to the bewildering — a grenade, a rocket launcher, a dead 10-foot python.

“Imagine anything and everything that people touch and discard — it all ends up here in one way or another,” said Matt Stern, Pacific Northwest-British Columbia area director of recycling operations for Waste Management.


According to Stern, this problem is in direct contrast to the one that he saw in the recycling industry three decades ago: Back then, not enough people were recycling, and the obstacle was convincing people to do so, he said. Now, people want so much to avoid sending their trash to the landfill that they put just about anything in the recycling bin. This habit, described as “wishcycling,” is no better (maybe even worse) than just throwing something in the garbage can.

At JMK Fibers, 5 to 7 percent of the 600 tons that the facility receives daily is actually trash.

“We’ve trained (people) to think that it’s better to put something in the recycling than in the garbage: Garbage is bad, recycling is good,” said Stern. “They have the choice, so they put things in the recycling, and it creates a big contamination problem.”

In the world of recycling, contamination refers to anything in the recycling stream that shouldn’t be there, because it can’t be made into a product. These items can cause problems for the sorting equipment (plastic bags and garden hoses are big culprits for causing mechanical issues) as well as ruin good materials that could have otherwise been recycled (dirty diapers and food waste can contaminate clean paper and plastic).

Recyclers might not recognize the impact of the contamination they create in those blue bins, because of an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. However, the culmination of these mistakes — whether they stem from wishful thinking, misunderstanding, or outright apathy — has recently thrown a long-established system into asymmetry with the loss of an important player: China.

“In 2017, China announced that they would be enacting much stricter quality standards for the recycled goods they receive and process,” said Jetta Antonakos, senior environmental specialist at the City of Tacoma.

This policy, called the China National Sword, was implemented on Jan. 1, 2018. It’s allowed China to reject shipments that were contaminated — dirty or mixed with trash, and bans 24 types of solid waste, including unsorted mixed paper and plastics. It also sets a contamination maximum for materials it does accept at .05 percent.

JMK Fibers

Dan Knight, manager of JMK Fibers

According to Dan Knight, manager of JMK Fibers, a level of contamination that low is impossible for any facility in the world to meet. This proves problematic for the fate of a decades-old system that depended on China as a reliable processor of recycled goods: A study published in Science Advances in June 2018 estimates that 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced by 2030 because of the new law.

With the new restrictions, facilities are hard-pressed to find solutions, even with multi-million-dollar updates — new state-of-the-art technology to clean up the recycling stream — to equipment like the one JMK Fibers will complete in late March. The state of the entire operation — which until two years ago was a well-oiled machine — now hangs in a liminal space.

“The primary solution has been to find other markets, but that’s only a temporary solution,” said Stern. “China was the largest market for this material, so this change has been a major world disruption.”

Secondary markets that Waste Management now sends materials to include Vietnam, Korea, Malaysia, and India. While Waste Management has thus far been successful in getting material to end markets, these countries don’t have the infrastructure necessary to handle the world’s recyclables in the longterm. That kind of solution has yet to be determined.

“It’s a big deal, and it’s been going on for two years,” said Stern. “It created chaos behind the scenes … and we still don’t know what this looks like or what the future holds.”

If all this is news to you, you might be asking yourself: If this is such a big deal, why haven’t I heard about it?

“We’ve held off making changes to our program in order to give the markets time to adjust,” said Antonakos. “We’ve focused on emphasizing the importance of clean material and increased notifications to residents to help them better understand what items are not acceptable.”

The process of shifting a system so well-established is a complicated one, especially because every city accepts slightly different materials. Lists of what can go into the blue bin need to be carefully re-evaluated to consider what materials are still valuable on the market, and intentional public awareness programs need to be paired with any changes.

The City of Tacoma doesn’t want to make recommendations to the public until it has ironed out all the details. Fortunately, Antonakos said that she foresees the recycling program sticking around despite the rising costs that China’s restrictions have caused — costs that have to do with the increasing expense of processing and the decreasing value of overabundant materials.

“Our goal is to be environmentally responsible and have a program that is sustainable over the long term. While we wait and watch the recycling industry adjust to change, we’ve done our best to maintain the status quo and our program integrity.”

Tacoma has a long history of dedication to its recycling program, being among the first wave of cities in the United States to create a program for curbside recycling and, shortly after, automatize that program in 1990.

Jackie Lang, area senior manager for Waste Management, said that City of Tacoma staff remains committed and engaged to doing the right thing. And the city’s direct access to one of three facilities in Washington run by the No. 1 recycler in North America — a facility responsible for processing material from parts of Washington, Alaska, Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Canada — doesn’t hurt, either.


“Tacoma is uniquely positioned to get it right,” said Lang. “We have the right culture and world-class infrastructure.”

But despite the hard work done by cities like Tacoma and companies like Waste Management, at the end of the day, it’s on all of us — consumers, companies, restaurants — to get it right.

“It’s humans that create the contamination, and humans that can easily solve it, too,” said Antonakos.

Kristin Lynett, executive director of the City of Tacoma Office of Environmental Policy and Sustainability, gave some recommendations as to how the everyday person can do her part.

“What we have to do is make sure we’re recycling right: sticking with what is actually reliably recyclable,” said Lynett. “And buying less material in the first place. Print less paper, reuse glass jars; avoid buying things that you don’t need. It’s really about that part first. And when you do buy something, focus on purchasing goods made from recycled materials, because that helps to boost the market.”

Waste Management also has a list of easily digestible advice.

“We’ve launched a universal recycling platform, and if you follow these three basic guidelines, that’s a huge step,” said Lang. “Recycle all aluminum, cardboard, paper, and metal; no food or liquids; no plastic bags.”

Lang said it all comes down to people’s mentality about recycling. The “out of sight, out of mind” approach isn’t working, and it’s the responsibility of each of us to recognize the impact of our actions, no matter our intent.

So, next time you’re about to toss something in the recycling bin, pause. Double-check that it really belongs in there, because if it doesn’t, a human being will have to snatch it off a conveyor belt that travels at a dizzying speed.

And make sure it’s clean and dry before it goes in the blue bin: It’s on each of us to ensure that our recycling is distinguishable from our trash, so it can be made into something new — even if the future of what that will look like is itself unclear.


JMK Fibers

  • 90,000-square-foot building on a 10-acre site
  • 600 tons sorted every day
  • 1 shipping container filled every hour
  • One 3,000-pound bale of mixed paper made every minute
  • 24 loading docks for shipping overseas
  • 115 employees
is an assistant editor at South Sound magazine. Email her.
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