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Where does recycling go?

Visit to Recology Recycling Center in Seattle, WA

I had the opportunity to visit the Recology Recycling Center in Seattle last month, and I absolutely loved it.

During this event, I met a bunch of passionate people. Seattle Zero waste members, individuals like you and me who just want to become better recyclers and small business owners who want to make recycling easier for all.

After a round of introductions, we had a presentation about the company and its mission, about the difference between garbage, recycling, and compost, how to do things right, where recycling goes, how it gets contaminated, re-cycled, and how the whole sorting machinery functions.

You can imagine how many questions we asked and how many responses I got for you.

About the Company and the Facility.

Recology is an employee-owned company, which hauls and processes recycling bins in 10 Puget Sound communities. Their mission is to reduce tons of waste sent to landfills, recover resources, and save money!

350 tons of material is processed per day in Seattle facility, by hand and sorting technology.

Where does recycling go?

Let’s start from the beginning: we sort our garbage at home, take it out for curbside pick up once a week, and then what?

I remember my kids asking me that question, "where does the big Garbage truck go?"

First, know that these big loud trucks are slowly but surely transitioning to electric vehicles. I heard that the City of Issaquah asked for them in our communities.

1. Recycling is picked up by the collection truck

2. It's taken to a Material Recovery Facility for sorting

3. Recyclables are sorted by people and machines

4. Sorted materials are baled together to be sold

5. Bales are sent to recyclers to be made into new things

It is important to know that Recology recycles all the acceptable materials they collect. They never send to landfill. Buyers of these commodities vary from month to month based on the market for the materials.

Where Seattle's Recyclables Go:

28% is recycled in Seattle

38% is recycled in the Northwest and North America

34% is recycled in Asia

Detailed below is the breakdown for destinations of commodities during the summer of 2021.

100% of glass and metals are recycled in the Northwest, 75% for cardboard.

(Source: )

How does the machinery work?

THE MRF (Material Recovery Facility) in SODO, does its absolute best to recycle items into something new.

During the tour of the machinery, I saw the metering bin in action. It regulates the amount of material that comes onto the MRF conveyor, ensures the flow is consistent and manageable (believe me: it goes fast!) and dozers dump the material into the metering bin rather than directly onto the conveyor.

Then everything arrives at the Primary Sort Station, where each employee is focused on a type of material, especially plastic. They remove large pieces that may damage equipment, lift off large cardboard and remove contamination (I will talk about contamination later).

Then we have the paper separator, which separates lighter materials like paper from heavier material like plastics and cans, the lighter material goes up, while the heavier goes to the bottom. Plastic bags make things more complicated and less effective. When Plastic bags (that are not recyclable) get stuck in the machinery, they must stop and pick them up by hand (you know, it is pretty much like hair getting stuck at the bottom of our vacuum…)

The Paper quality control station has a human inspection to monitor contamination and focuses on cardboard. Each employee is looking for specific material.

The plastic sort station is about quality plastic products.

The Magnet Machine is a fun one. The magnet technology can pick up metallic material like tin and separate it from the bunch. The Optical sorter has an integrated system of AI, cameras, and air. Cameras recognize different types of material, and the machine separates the material with puffs of air.

All good recyclables are finally pressed into large cubes that will be stored and recycled.

Here is a short video of the Machinery in Action:

What do you mean about Contamination?

Even with high technology machinery, it is hard to recycle 100%. Almost 40% of our waste is recyclable. Recycling reuses materials, preventing the need to harvest new material, like oil for plastic and trees for paper. This all reduces pollution and saves energy.

The MRF has an average of 15-20% contamination rate. This is where we can make a difference at home. Our goal is to reduce that rate because contaminated items end up in landfill.

Contamination is when non-recyclable materials contaminate recyclable ones.

For example, plastics bags, hoses… get caught in the spinning disc of the sorting equipment. Liquid and food waste contaminate paper and cardboard.

Let's do our part

This visit was such an eye opening for me. I realized the importance of my role as a consumer and as a recycler. Every little step counts.

Here are the 3 things you can do at home that will make a significant difference: (There are recommendations by Seattle Recycling center. Please consult your City/County Recycling Program)

  1. Recycle right: Learn from your recycling center program what is recyclable and what is not. And stick to these lists of items. (List available at Your Three Carts | Recology Cleanscapes | Seattle)

  2. Keep it loose! Do NOT put your recyclables into a plastic bag.

  3. Empty, clean, and dry! Your coffee cup, tomato sauce cans are maybe recyclable, but they are not recyclable when they have coffee or liquid or sauce in it. So, take time to Empty, clean, and Dry!


Hi there!

I am Aline, Artist, eco-educator, and owner of Out Of The Box Eco-Store in Seattle-area, WA

Many of us want to reduce our plastic waste and live more sustainably, but don’t know where to start. My refillery and low waste living store supports eco-living and helps you reduce plastic waste by offering refillable home and personal care products.

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