Americans annually recycle 66 million tons of goods. We send one third of this material overseas, and until recently, most of it went to China. As you might have heard, China recently cracked down on the quality and types of recyclables it will import. This means that recycling properly and reducing our need for recycling is more important than ever. Use this recycling guide to increase your efficiency. To reduce the need for recycling, check out our tips for reducing waste, and Seattle package-free shopping guide.

This recycling guide provides information specific for Seattle, answers common recycling questions and discusses how to recycle difficult items.

Where it goes

In the city of Seattle, recycling trucks pick up recyclables in curbside bins and bring them to one of two transfer stations. These are located in Wallingford and south of First Avenue South Bridge. The transfer stations sort and bundle the recycling and send it to recycling facilities. Recology, Seattle’s recycling facility located in SODO, sorts recyclables by hand and infrared sensors, and removes garbage. Recycling facilities bale materials of the same type to ship out to domestic and international buyers.
recycling guide

What can be recycled?

It can be confusing to figure out whether certain items can be recycled. Recycling rules can change frequently and usually differ between cities which makes it even harder to know what goes where. I spoke with Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) and Recology representatives to clarify some questions and to gather Seattle-specific information. SPU also has helpful printable guides and flyers, like this one which can help you sort your waste. As a general rule, SPU accepts paper, cardboard, and plastic coated paper, as well as plastics, glass and metals for recycling. Remember, Seattle accepts only empty, clean and dry recyclables. Below are some tips to remedy common errors.

Correcting common recycling errors 

Here are some other helpful tips to make sure you are recycling right:

  • Stop “aspirational recycling.” We have good intentions when we try to recycle an item, but if it’s not recyclable this can end up harming the sorting machines and contaminating other items. First see if it’s possible to reuse or donate the item. If not, look up where it goes using SPU’s “Where does it go?” search tool. If you cannot determine how to dispose of something, throwing it away is better than improperly recycling.
  • Jars, tubs and bottles must be clean and dry when placed in the recycling. Any water or leftover food can contaminate a whole bin.
  • Plastic lids less than three inches in diameter go in the garbage. On the bright side, larger caps can be recycled.
  • Aluminum can lids must be attached and bent down to be recycled. If they are detached, they should go in the trash.
  • Items that don’t fit in your recycling bin: Don’t be afraid to leave out additional items on your curbside. Extra recycling can be set next to your bins in a cardboard box and be taken away at no extra charge.
  • Wet or food-stained paper and cardboard goes into the compost.
  • Multi-layered packaging items, such as paper envelopes with bubble wrap inside, go in the garbage.
  • Wire coat hangers belong in the garbage
recycling guide

Photo by Alfonso from Unsplash

Recycling guide for hard-to-recycle items

First things first: can it be donated? Old working appliances, furniture, household goods, clothing, and electronics can be dropped off at a donation site such as Goodwill. You can also gift such items to neighbors through your neighborhood Buy Nothing group – find yours here.

  • Clothes and linens in any condition, (besides wet, mildewed or hazardous): Drop these off at stores participating in the Threadcycle program. Find your nearest participating store here. Gently used clothing can be dropped off along with damaged, stained or torn clothing. These stores typically sort clothes to be resold or recycled, depending on the condition.
  • Rechargeable batteries and cell phones: Drop these off at these hazardous waste collection facilities. Alkaline batteries can be recycled at participating stores. See our guide to properly disposing hazardous waste in Washington.
  • Light bulbs: These participating store locations accept unbroken fluorescent tubes as well as compact fluorescent and mercury bulbs. Broken bulbs belong wrapped up in the trash.
  • Medicines: Do not flush medicines down the toilet or put them in the garbage. Drop them off for free at your nearest participating Seattle pharmacy.
  • Medicine bottles: Over-the-counter medicine bottles can be recycled traditionally. Plastic prescription vials belong in the garbage. Seattle ReCreative, a non-profit which reuses materials to be used in art, will accept limited quantities of pill bottles. You can find more information and contact info here. Contact them in advance to ask if they are currently taking this product.
  • Styrofoam and packing peanuts: The Styro-Recycle center in Kent accepts these items for recycling. Materials must be clean, dry and separated. Packing peanuts must be bagged separately.
recycling guide

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If you have further information that we haven’t included here, or if you know of more up-to-date information, let us know in the comments or through our contact form!

Further information

Interested in learning more about recycling in the U.S.? Check out these informative podcasts: Why Glass Recycling is Such a Big Deal” from Go Green with Jill Buck How China’s Crackdown is Affecting U.S. Recycling” from Encore: National Sword Republic Services’ New ‘Recycling Simplified Campaign” from Go Green with Jill Buck

Featured photo by Pawel from Unsplash