Seattle’s Recycling Process

Seattle Public Utilities’ Beyond Garbage: Where Does It Go?
Where Seattle’s Recycling Goes: Republic Services’ Materials Recovery Facility

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.

What happens to Seattle’s Recycling after it’s picked up

Sorting out your recycling is the first step on its journey to be becoming something new. First it hauled to a Material Recovery Facility, then it’s sorted into similar materials, bailed together, then sold to manufacturers to finally be recycled into something new.

A diagram of a Seattle recycling cart is shown

The recycling process is shown

  • Step 1: Recycling is picked up by the collection truck
  • Step 2: Taken to a Material Recovery Facility for sorting
  • Step 3: Recyclables are sorted by people and machines
  • Step 4: Sorted materials are baled together to be sold
  • Step 5: Bales are sent to recyclers to be made into new things

Sorting out recyclables at the Materials Recovery Facility

Once collected recyclables go to the Material Recovery Facility (MRF) to be sorted into each type of material. Most of Seattle’s material is processed at a facility in SODO. Watch how the materials are sorted and baled together so they could be sold to processors to be made into new items.

A graph of Seattle's recycling is shown

Where Seattle's Recyclables Go:
28% is recycled in Seattle
38% is recycled in the Northwest and North America
34% is recycled in Asia

Where Seattle’s Recyclables Go

The recycling industry has gone through big changes recently - When China stopped accepting recyclables in late 2017, there was a need for new places to send materials to be recycled.

For Seattle, this meant finding new markets for:

  • mixed paper - magazines, office paper, and newspaper
  • mixed plastic - yogurt tubs and to-go containers

Since then, new recyclers have started up and other recyclers have increased operations. For Seattle, this means that most recyclables are now being recycled in North America, including all plastics, glass and metal, and most of the paper and cardboard.

Seattle is committed to recycling and you can rest assured your recyclables are still being recycled. Recycling is alive and well, and we need your help to keep it going and make it better!

Effects of Recycling Changes in Seattle

How is SPU responding to changing recycling markets?

SPU is working with our contractor, Republic Services, to ensure material is successfully processed, and partnering with coordinating local, state and federal agencies on regional market opportunities. Republic Services facility has implemented significant new technology and operations to meet the changing market. SPU monitors Republic to ensure materials are successfully processed and sold to available markets, both domestically and internationally. SPU has also been partnering with regional agencies and other processors on short and long-term opportunities to diversify markets and support domestic options for additional processing and incorporating recyclables into new products.

Are Seattle’s recyclables going to the landfill?

No. Seattle’s contracted recyclables processor is not allowed to send Seattle’s recyclables to the landfill. Other municipalities in our region have their own contractual relationships with the same processor which could allow some of those municipalities’ recyclables to be sent to the landfill, depending on the decision of each municipality.

Seattle’s recyclables continue to be processed and shipped, both domestically and internationally Destinations and markets for Seattle’s recyclables vary from month to month and year to year. Two-thirds of Seattle’s recycling is processed domestically. Approximately 40% of the mixed plastics are processed domestically, including a new processing partnership in British Columbia. Over 50% of Seattle’s mixed paper and cardboard is processed in Eastern Washington. All metal recycling is local and 100% of Seattle’s glass recycling is processed right here in Seattle! The other one-third of Seattle’s recyclables are exported, mostly to other manufacturing facilities in Southeast Asia, including Korea, India, Indonesia, and Thailand.

How does this affect Seattle’s customers and recycling?

SPU has not made any changes to its recycling program for the customers. Customers should continue to recycle according to the recycling guidelines and put only accepted materials in the recycling bins. Reducing contamination increases the value of recyclables. Make sure recyclables are clean, empty, and dry as food and liquids contaminate recyclables. We encourage customers to focus on reducing contamination in the recyclables they sort out at home, work, and in the community.

What is contamination in recyclables?

Contamination is any material that is different from the sorted material. A bale of paper with anything other than paper is contaminated. Contamination can include other materials, like plastics, metal, or food or liquids mixed into baled material.

Recyclable materials need to be sorted into similar materials before they are shipped out to be made into new products. That process is done at a local processing facility where the materials are sorted by machines and people. When food, liquids and materials that are not accepted for recycling are sent to the processor, the machinery and system is not set up to sort them out. They end up in the bales as contaminants.

What can the customer do to #RecycleRight?

To ensure recyclables are usable for recycling and to decrease contamination, make sure all recyclables are empty, clean and dry. Containers that previously contained food or liquid should be rinsed to remove food and liquid residue. Shake out excess liquid and air dry, if you can.

Recycle only materials that are accepted by your city’s waste collection company. When in doubt, find out. Check your local recycling guidelines to ensure you’re putting the right materials in the recycle cart. Put materials loose in the cart. Please do not bag or box recyclables. Plastic bags jam up the machinery at the recycling centers. Bagged recyclables can also be confused for trash because workers can’t see inside.

Related Resources:

Recycle Right
Where Does It Go Tool