Coastwide
| Pickers on the lines at Republic Services’ Sodo facility pull out items that cannot be recycled. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

USA - With recycling's dirty truths exposed, Washington works toward a cleaner, more sustainable system

IN 2017, ABOUT three-quarters of the stuff Seattleites dumped in their blue recycling bins — from grocery store ads and crumpled cracker boxes to shampoo bottles and yogurt tubs — was shipped to China. These days, virtually none of it is.

In 2017, ABOUT three-quarters of the stuff Seattleites dumped in their blue recycling bins — from grocery store ads and crumpled cracker boxes to shampoo bottles and yogurt tubs — was shipped to China. These days, virtually none of it is. The majority of the material is being recycled much closer to home — at facilities across North America and, increasingly, right here in the Pacific Northwest.

It’s a transformation that would have once seemed unthinkable. For more than two decades, China eagerly sought out the world’s paper and plastic waste and paid handsomely for it. Then, in 2018, the Asian nation slammed the door, fed up with shipments so filthy with garbage and debris, they couldn’t be recycled and were a nightmare to dispose of.

The Backstory: I’ve cleaned up my act — but the system needs to be cleaned up, too

China called its new policy “National Sword,” and the impact was immediate. Recycling programs across the United States suddenly found themselves with mountains of materials and no market. The West Coast was hit especially hard because of its reliance on cheap transport of recyclables via otherwise-empty shipping containers headed back to Chinese ports.

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