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Jan 24

Why Can’t I Recycle Coffee Cups and Cartons?

Posted to Garbage Goat on January 24, 2022 at 6:09 PM by Austin Stewart

GG coffee cups_300

 Paper is one of the most common recyclable commodities. It alone makes up about 11% of Washington state’s waste according to the Department of Ecology’s waste composition studies, so there’s plenty of it to be recycled. However, paper products like disposable coffee cups, shelf-stable milk cartons, and refrigerated milk cartons are not recyclable, and they’re considered a source of contamination in our single-stream recycling bins. If paper is a material that we use quite regularly, and if other types of paper are accepted in our recycling bins, why can’t we recycle coffee cups and cartons?

The process of recycling paper is straightforward: discarded paper is turned back into pulp and processed into new paper. Brighter, office-quality paper is more difficult to create from recycled paper because it requires a more “pure” source of recycled pulp, but there’s demand for paper of all qualities, and recycled paper products can easily be used for things like egg cartons, cardboard, insulation, and even coffee filters. Paper relies on fewer non-renewable resources than plastic does—the fibers paper is made of literally grow on trees, whereas plastics are made from oil that is non-renewable. 

Though paper does an excellent job for most of its uses, it doesn’t do a great job of being waterproof. You don’t want your hot coffee seeping through your cup, and you don’t want your milk carton becoming mushy and falling apart. To avoid this mess, packaging manufacturers line paper food and drink containers with a thin plastic or wax film (and sometimes a tiny bit of aluminum in shelf-stable cartons) that prevents water from absorbing into the paper. The paper creates an inexpensive and sturdy container, and the plastic or wax layer is a cheap and easy way to make it waterproof. The most common items that use coated paper are paper beverage containers, paper cups, and frozen food containers. These containers are cheap to make, lightweight and easy to ship, and have a long shelf life. In theory, it’s a foolproof solution.

The problem with these combination paper and plastic products arises when you want to recycle them. For a commodity to be recycled, it needs to be separated from other types of materials so that it can be processed. Most of Spokane County’s single stream recyclables are sorted into varying plastic, paper, and other material categories at the Waste Management SMaRT center. Here, machines and people divide recyclables into different categories, such as newspaper, cardboard, plastics #1 and #2, aluminum, etc. However, the plastic or wax linings on cups and cartons cannot be separated from the paper material by the SMaRT Center’s technology, and there are not many places that are currently able to process these combination materials. For example, King County accepts these cartons as recyclables, but in Spokane County we do not have industries capable of processing these materials, so they are not accepted in our single stream recycling bins. 


Multi-material cartons are not likely to be accepted anytime soon in Spokane County, so if you’re hoping to eliminate non-recyclable waste from your life, it’s best to find alternatives. Make an effort to avoid single-use items, and prioritize buying items in recyclable or reusable containers. Disposable cups can be replaced by water bottles or reusable mugs and tumblers, and look for milk and juice in recyclable plastic containers when possible. When buying paper products, look for items made from recycled paper. Though your purchase may be the proverbial drop in the market’s ocean, if consumers continue to favor items made from renewable and recycled packaging, the market will grow and demand will increase. 

The three basic R’s are ordered by importance: Reduce the amount of packaged foods you buy, and you will have less waste. Reuse what you can, and you’ll need to purchase fewer new items. Finally, recycle all that is possible, and when in doubt, throw it out!

Jun 27

What are Microplastics?

Posted to Garbage Goat on June 27, 2019 at 3:22 PM by Austin Stewart


There is growing concern in our community about the environmental impact of microplastics, tiny pieces of plastic pollution that are found in our environment. Microplastics are concerning because they are easily distributed, travelling by air and through bodies of water, and they are persistent, meaning they will not easily break down in the natural environment. However, there is still very little research on how microplastics affect human health. 

Many national headlines about plastic pollution have focused on our oceans, but microplastics have also been found throughout Spokane County, including in the Spokane River, local tap water, and even in snow on Mount Spokane. The most recent research on microplastics in Spokane County has been aimed at the effect of the Spokane Wastewater Treatment Plant on levels of microplastic pollution in the Spokane River. This study has not been peer reviewed, but is available to read on Spokane Riverkeeper’s website

The results from the study are straightforward: surprising levels of microplastics were found in every sample taken from the Spokane River, averaging 12 pieces of microplastic pollution per liter of water. Further research is still being conducted, aimed at identifying top sources of microplastics and options for remediation. Currently, Spokane City’s wastewater treatment plant is working towards installing a new membrane filtration process that is expected to remove a majority of microplastics from its effluent. The Spokane County Water Reclamation Facility already has a filtration process that is assumed to remove almost all microplastics.
Knowledge of microplastics remains murky, and until the waters are cleared, it’s difficult to understand the implications of these findings. Known sources of microplastics are widespread: the wear of tires on roads, synthetic fibers like polyester that break down when washed, plastic litter that becomes broken up over time, and more. However, minimizing your impact on microplastic pollution is possible. Try to swap out single use items for reusable products. Ensure you are disposing of all plastic waste responsibly, bagging your waste and keeping debris secure to prevent pollution. Washing synthetic fibers can release plastic particles, and products such as the Guppyfriend washing bag, Cora Ball, or specially-designed washer machine filters*, are designed to prevent fibers from being released into the wastewater system. 

In situations that are confusing or discouraging, focus on the basics: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Reduce your consumption, and pay special attention to the single-use items you are using. Reuse what is possible, and recycle your basic materials like paper, cardboard, metal, and plastic bottles and tubs. If you’re concerned about plastic pollution, consider getting a group of friends together to clean up a polluted area with Spokane County’s Team Up to Clean Up project. Alternately, you can volunteer with the Spokane Riverkeeper to help keep the river free from pollution. 

*The views and opinions of authors expressed on the Garbage Goat’s blog do not necessarily state or reflect those of Spokane County and they may not be used for advertising or product endorsement purposes. Mention of a specific product on the Garbage Goat’s blog does not imply endorsement by Spokane County.
Jun 20

What’s the Difference Between Curbside and Transfer Station Recycling?

Posted to Garbage Goat on June 20, 2019 at 2:13 PM by Austin Stewart

Recycling can vary significantly in different areas, and even within Spokane County you can find different recycling standards based on where and how you are disposing of your recyclables. These changes are impacted by multiple factors, from who picks up and transports your recyclables, to who ultimately handles your recyclables and sorts or packages them. Knowing these differences can inform how you recycle, and what items and commodities you want to prioritize. 


If you have curbside recycling pickup service, you do not have to sort your recyclables into separate containers, and that’s called commingled recycling—all materials are combined. Though you don’t have to sort your recyclables, you are still obligated to only put whichever materials into your recycling bin that your waste hauler allows. The list of what is and is not allowed in your recycling bin is determined by several factors. 

First, County Code 8.58.040 states the minimum types of recyclables that shall be collected in a curbside program. Next, the list is impacted by the hauler who is picking up the recycling bins deciding what they are willing to transport. The waste haulers in Spokane County are Waste Management, Sunshine Disposal, and the City of Spokane. One difference between haulers is whether or not they accept glass. When glass gets crushed in recycling trucks, it can damage the mechanisms and walls of the truck’s waste compartment, adding equipment repair costs. Because of this, Waste Management and Sunshine Disposal do not accept glass in their recycling bins, but the City of Spokane does. To find out which hauler services your area, check out Spokane County’s Curbside Pickup page

The list can also be impacted by where the recyclables are taken to. In Spokane County, commingled recyclables are likely sent to Waste Management’s SMaRT Center, and the list of materials they accept impacts what you’re able to put into your recycling bin. One reason you cannot put styrofoam or plastic bags in your recycling bin in Spokane County is because the SMaRT Center is not equipped to handle these challenging materials, and so no local hauler currently accepts them in commingled recycling bins either.

Commingled curbside recycling bins are the easiest and simplest way to handle your recyclables. You don’t have to drive anywhere to drop recyclables off, and you don’t have to worry about sorting them either. However, the service is not free, and to have curbside recycling you need to live where recycling is offered, which is regulated by Spokane County. Additionally, some landlords, homeowners associations, and other entities are not willing to pay the fee or set up curbside recycling services with the hauler. Neighborhoods who are not in the regulated recycling service area can contact the Spokane County Regional Solid Waste System to learn more about the petition process to be included in the regulated recycling service area. 

Transfer Station

Another way to dispose of your recyclables is to take them to one of the three local transfer stations. Taking recyclables to a transfer station is free, but you need transportation and time to do so. The North County and Valley transfer stations have areas for both sorted and commingled recyclables, while the Waste to Energy Transfer Station requires that recyclables be sorted. Sorted recyclables are less likely to be contaminated, so they are of higher value and easier to sell to someone who will recycle the material. Whether you sort your recyclables at the transfer station or place them all in a commingle area, your choice will have an impact on the quality and salability of your recyclables, and therefore impact the likelihood that they will be turned into new materials. 

Transfer stations are the cheapest option for recycling disposal. They also enable you to talk directly with solid waste experts, and staff at transfer stations who are trained and able to answer your questions about recycling. If making regular trips to a transfer station is not a possibility for you, consider waiting longer between trips to collect more recyclable material, or finding a neighbor or friend who will make a combined trip with you. 

The most important factor to consider when choosing your waste disposal options is what is sustainable for you. Though going to a transfer station and sorting your recyclables by hand might ensure they are kept free from contamination, regular trips and the effort required to sort your materials might not be manageable long-term. Find a balance between what is best for the environment, and what is best for you. 
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