Recycling not always effective

Single-stream sorting not consistent money-maker, can pollute overseas landfills



“Without the students’ participation, recycling becomes less effective,” Devon Felsted, president of Pullman Disposal Service, said, discussing the importance of recycling efficiently Thursday at the PDS office.

CHLOE GRUNDMEIER, Evergreen reporter

In Pullman, commingled recycling, also known as single-stream or single-sort, is the common man’s game, but it’s definitely not where the money is made. This brings up questions of how important recycling is, what happens when we recycle something and how do we recycle efficiently?


Up until recently, recycling programs treated recycled materials as a commodity in a profitable market. They would bail their material, which constitutes of crushing it into cubes. They would then sell it to consumers for over $100 per ton, and whatever wasn’t immediately desirable was sold overseas.

This changed when China, the main buyer of overseas recycling, pulled out of the market due to contamination issues that caused an international garbage problem. This move then tanked the market. This affects everyone, including Pullman.

“We need to have a change in emphasis on clean recycling,” said Rick Finch, manager of WSU Waste Management. “The materials that are food-contaminated can no longer be accepted. It doesn’t work in the systems and it ends up landfilled anyway. These contaminated materials were exported for a while, but that market is closed now.”

Waste Management was forced to change the commingled waste cans on the Glenn Terrell Friendship Mall to landfill over the summer because their contents were indistinguishable from other trash.

“The garbage actually looked a little bit cleaner,” Finch said. “We have to create a change in philosophy that only recycling goes in the recycling bin and that it’s all clean.”

Devon Felsted, president of Pullman Disposal Services, has worked in waste management and recycling for decades — since he was 14, in fact. He takes care of recycling for everyone who lives on off-campus property.

He said the main thing to remember when recycling is make sure the item is clean, dry and empty, and added, “When in doubt, throw it out.”

Zero waste is a trendy goal right now, which Finch says is unattainable until a huge change is made by manufacturers. Many individuals who follow these trends, however, are increasing levels of contamination.

“We’ve developed these programs where we put everything in one container and call it recyclable and we feel better,” Finch said. “The people who want to recycle everything were recycling contaminated material. Then all this material is being exported, mostly to China, and is largely garbage. We were just causing another garbage problem in China.”

To try to solve this contamination problem, Finch and the Waste Management team are working to spread awareness and reduce ignorance.


Finch believes the vagueness of the term ‘commingled’ caused much of the confusion and contamination. He said they plan to change to simpler blue recycling signs with clear labels of what is recyclable and what is not. He said he hopes this will mean students find recycling easier, and it will show in the packing facility.

Finch found a better recycling system in the dorms, which he attributed to the lack of food in the rooms. One tip he had was to dump recyclables out of plastic bags, as the bags themselves are not recyclable in Pullman.

Plastic bags could actually lead to all the contents being landfilled. Even if the materials in the bag are recyclable, there’s no way to confirm it. Felsted agreed that plastic bags just “gum up the works.”

The blue dumpsters on campus are designated for commingled recycling and are labeled as such. Off campus recyclables can go into the crimson roll carts.

“Without the students’ participation, recycling becomes less effective and more expensive,” Felsted said. “The more people that actually recycle, the less expensive it is for everybody.”


Students expressed concern about what happens to their recyclables after they’re placed in the commingled bins. Some may see the same trucks that pick up and crush their garbage and immediately think the truck is headed to a landfill. This is not the case. Finch said these trucks actually take commingled material, because this material has a “light and fluffy” consistency.

Pullman no longer recycles glass. Finch said they stopped because if glass gets mixed in with commingled recycling, it breaks up and lowers the worth of the bailed product by about $20 per ton. For a market that pays $50-$150 per ton, this presents an issue.

Felsted said glass is not a scarce resource and spends most of its time in a landfill anyway. He said the goal of recycling glass it is to lessen its mass at this point. Whitman County, for example, crushes recycled glass and uses it as road filler to keep it out of landfills.

Many people hold misconceptions about which items they can actually put into a recycling bin. The recyclability of an item relies on the market value and general market atmosphere of that item. Starbucks cups, for example, claim to be recyclable.

“Starbucks says their coffee cups are recyclable, but there’s never been a market for them,” Finch said. “We were either sorting them out and putting them in the landfill without telling anybody or sending them overseas.”

Recycling plants also avoid plastics No. 3-7, plastics made from previously recycled materials or from other byproducts of producing plastic. This presents some confusion because these often have a recyclable logo on the bottom.

The necessity of recycling

Recycling keeps resources in use rather than thrown in a landfill while we mine the Earth or exploit it in other ways for new ones. Felsted said it produces less pollution, takes less energy and can be cost-effective when done right.

“When you’re not recycling, you’re just adding to a landfill,” Finch said. “The U.S. is a very consumer-heavy society. We use a lot of one-use items and then we throw them away. Resources are limited, and I believe that at some point we will be mining resources that we have previously thrown away because things will become limited enough.”