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This America Recycles Day: Keep Recycling Right – And Look to Reduce and Reuse More

A recent report by Greenpeace questioned whether plastics recycling is really worth it after their research revealed limited plastic waste was recycled last year. The coverage of this report prompted Seattle customers to reach out to Seattle Public Utilities asking if plastics in Seattle are being recycled at all.

This America Recycles Day, we are here to shed some light on plastics recycling to let you know that yes, it is worth it to keep recycling our plastics. But recycling alone isn’t going to get us closer to zero waste, and there is more we can do together to prevent waste in the first place.

The Greenpeace report raised important issues around the rise of single-use plastics with limited progress around responsible plastics recycling across the U.S. However, if you live in the Emerald City, you can rest assured that Seattle’s approach to recycling stands apart from many other cities. And we are proud that the types of materials you put in your blue cart —including plastic bottles and containers—are being successfully recycled.

Did you know these dirty facts about plastics?

  • The production of virgin plastic resin is a major source of climate pollution and raises concerns of impacts on communities
  • Around 40% of all virgin plastic produced globally is used for single-use plastic packaging that mostly ends up in landfills, incinerators, or worse – in the environment as pollution.
  • And some types of plastics created can’t currently be effectively recycled with today’s technology.

Recycling remains a critical part of our zero-waste mission and a circular economy, as the recycling of materials reduces the need for production of new ones. But knowing that the creation of single-use plastics has substantial negative impacts and there is limited infrastructure to accept the wide variety of plastics produced, we need to do more than just recycle. We need to prevent waste from occurring in the first place – providing the best results in reducing pollution and new resource use. We need to look to waste reduction and reuse along with recycling.

If you live in Seattle where recycling is a requirement for households, SPU has provided free curbside recycling services since 1988. Providing recycling for free helps customers save money on their garbage bills when they Recycle Right. But that isn’t true across the country, or even Washington state. As many as 40% of all households in the U.S. lack access to recycling services at home. So, millions of tons of valuable resources are not being recycled – not just plastics – but recyclable paper, metal, and glass are lost due to these gaps in recycling service and infrastructure. The production of these other types of materials also generates carbon emissions and other environmental impacts that can be dramatically reduced when recycled or reused.

There are different types of plastic that are recyclable and of different value depending on what they are made out of. High value rigid plastics like bottles, jugs, and tubs have reliable and well-developed end markets with demonstrated environmental benefits when used in place of virgin plastic materials. SPU invests and partners in customer education across the city and in multiple languages to ensure that all houses and apartments are set up for success and know which items to recycle.

As a result, our recycling program captures approximately three-quarters of all recyclable packaging and paper products discarded by residents, including more than half of all recyclable rigid plastic containers. While there is still room for improvement, this is much higher than the average recycling achieved across the U.S. At SPU, we are committed to ensuring that materials collected through our program can actually be recycled responsibly. We work with our contractors to ensure that no mixed plastics are exported outside of North America. This is why it is especially important for our customers to also participate to Recycle Right.

We are proud of our city’s recycling program, and the dedication of our customers to make it one of the strongest and most successful in the country. However, we know that there are opportunities to make more of the plastics in the marketplace recyclable and eliminate those that can’t be recycled. We are therefore actively working at a national level with the US Plastics Pact and other initiatives on efforts to encourage companies to design products for recyclability.

Recycling is only one part of the solution to the growing problem of plastic waste. That is why we are actively involved in efforts around Producer Responsibility in Washington, which will require the producers of consumer products to take responsibility for the recycling and impacts of their packaging as well as create financial incentives to reduce the flow of plastic into the waste stream. You can learn more about the effort of the Northwest Product Steward Ship Council here. SPU is also working to address single use-plastics through reuse systems and public-private partnerships to support the adoption of alternatives like reusable cups and other food & beverage containers through our work with Reuse Seattle.

So, this America Recycles Day, let’s keep recycling but let’s do more, too. Keep Recycling Right, but also join SPU as we commit to systems of reuse and reducing the waste we create in the first place.