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Washington recycling centers up staff, feel pressure under China restrictions

The sorting belts are moving more slowly and there are more people pulling out contaminants. It's all in direct response to China's announcement that our trash is no longer their treasure.

Trash still follows the same route when it gets to the Recology transfer station in South Seattle, but to the trained eye, something's different.

The sorting belts are moving slower and there are more people pulling out contaminants. It's all in direct response to China's announcement that our trash is no longer their treasure.

"By ending that demand, the price for those materials dropped dramatically almost overnight. So in about a year's time, the price for recycled paper dropped by over 98 percent," explained Recology General Manager Kevin Kelly.

China's decision to stop accepting plastic waste among many other items from other countries is causing plastic to pile up around the globe, the Associated Press reports. The Washington State Recycling Association says companies are having to add staff so they can more thoroughly sort items.

Recology is a business that operates like any other, Kelly said, and it needs to make money. In order to find a new market for this trash, the company has turned to southeast Asian, countries like India. Those countries, however, don't have the resources to deal with the volume and they also can't handle all of the contamination, like the shampoo bottle filled with hypodermic needles or a table saw blade we saw on our tour.

"We see contaminants ranging from dirty diapers to garden hoses to bicycle chains. People think something is recyclable and it's not," Kelly said. "Just because you may want something to be recycled, please don't put it in the blue bin. Confirm that it is, in fact, recyclable. Look at that chart on your bin and make sure that it belongs there."

Kelly said it's now more important than ever that residents sort their own trash correctly. Every piece of contaminant, like all the plastic bags tangled up in the machinery, slows down the process.

The most important rule to follow is to make sure your recycling is empty, clean, and dry.

"I hope as this develops that we can figure out ways to expand markets here domestically so that we don't have to worry about other countries. So we can take responsibility for our own materials. We can also do a better job of thinking about the type of materials that we buy, or maybe that we should or should not buy," Kelly said. "Maybe a silver lining out of all of this is that we produce a cleaner, recycling product at the end the day."

For more information on what's recyclable, click here.

Related | 23 million pounds of recyclables dumped in Oregon landfills