Recycling plastic isn’t easy — but the PNW has some ideas of how to fix that

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This series is sponsored by VertueLab. VertueLab did not provide editorial input.

Recycling is easy … right? Theoretically, yes, but plastics have historically caused big problems. The EPA reports that Americans only recycle 35% of the waste they create. But that number is misleading because it doesn’t account for all the residuals — or plastics — that cannot be recycled once they reach recycling facilities only to be incinerated or dumped in a landfill. 

Pacific Northwesterners tend to take great pride in their recycling skills and for good reason, too. Our recycling rates are higher than the national average. In 2017, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality reported a rate of 43%, and in 2013, the Washington Department of Ecology reported a rate of 51.4%

But that doesn’t address the fact that in 2017, 26.8 million tons of plastic ended up in the landfill nationwide, and 5.6 million was combusted, according to the EPA. That’s out of a total of 35.4 million tons of plastic recycled total in the U.S. that year. That’s roughly only 8.4% of all plastics that got recycled.

So what can we do to make it better? 

Reader Deanna Rizzo asked that question for our series on climate action: Why is recycling plastic so hard and how do we fix that?

Here’s what we learned:

The Problem

Executive Director of Zero Waste Washington Heather Trim is quick to say that the plastic problem may be overwhelming at first, but she predicts that within five years they’ll boost the recycling rates for plastic so that it’s comparable to glass and paper. 

So why is recycling plastic so hard? Trim explains:

  • There’s just more plastic out there. About 30-40% of plastics come from packaging — think all the materials in your last Amazon box or grocery store order. More and more items are being packaged with plastic these days rather than materials easier to recycle like glass, metal, or paper. 
  • Certain plastics are difficult to recycle. Have you ever noticed those numbers on the packaging of plastic containers? They’re there for a reason. Recyclables are marked 1-7 based on how easy they are to recycle with 1 being the easiest. 

For example, flexible plastics — like chip bags and baby food formula pouches — are almost impossible to recycle. This is because they are made by laminating together multiple layers of different types of plastics, metals, and even paper and are then impossible to separate. Another reason is that when they are flattened out on the conveyor belt they get sorted in with the paper, which ruins that whole bale of plastics to sell. 

  • There’s no market for certain plastics. At the end of the day, much like everything else in our world, recycling plastics comes down to the fact that it’s a business. Another reason that some plastics are easier to recycle than others, besides the materials used to make them, is the fact some are more desirable than others. 

The Process of Recycling

While recycling systems vary according to where you live, most go something like this: 

  • Waste collection: What you can and cannot recycle depends on your city’s guidelines. Be sure to do your research before throwing stuff in the recycling bin. (Here are helpful guides to Seattle and Portland recycling systems.) 
  • Sorting: All recyclables are sorted at a materials recovery facility (MRF) and then plastics are further sorted by type.
  • Bundling: Some plastics are then bundled together in bales which are then sold to companies to reuse.
  • Washing and melting down: Other plastics are cleaned and melted down to make pellets which businesses buy.
  • New product: The plastic that makes it to the bundling or pellet stage returns as a new product. 


Many different movements and campaigns have pushed to improve the way we use and recycle plastic. Recently, Washington  Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law a bill that bans the use of single-use plastic bags as of January 2021. Grocery stores will be able to offer customers paper or “reusable” plastic bags for a small fee. Cities like Seattle and Bellingham already have their own bans on plastic bags.

While there is a continuous push for more legislation to ban the use of plastic in different capacities, one experiment in Portland suggests a different plan altogether. 

The Pacific Northwest Secondary Sorting Demonstration Project took place over 60 days in Portland and took materials from four different materials recovery facilities (also known as MRFs) in Washington and Oregon. 

The project used a secondary MRF to collect difficult to sort materials from primary MRFs. You know, the sort of plastics that end up going to the landfill instead of being actually recycled. Essentially, the addition of a secondary facility makes the capability of primary MRFs more expansive and efficient.

Secondary MRFs have the technology to sort through the residuals from primary locations, allowing them to recover even more plastics than before. The project also set out to prove the cost-efficiency of having a secondary facility rather than introducing new technology to primary sites, which is one reason nothing has been done before. 

The report found that a regional secondary materials recovery facility for Washington and Oregon would: 

  • Increase material recovery or landfill diversion by more than 100 million pounds per year, equivalent to 2,500 semi-trailer truckloads of recovered materials bound for recycling facilities.
  • Increase the recovery rate by 3%to 6% without significant program changes or investments.
  • Reduce the generation of greenhouse gases by more than 130,000 tons per year — the equivalent to taking more than 27,600 cars off the road.
  • Enable future expansion of the accepted materials list without needing to retrofit primary facilities.
  • Provide accountability for all collected recyclable materials and eliminate the risk of potential mismanagement and pollution.

What can YOU do about recycling?

The best thing you can do according to Trim is to simply reduce your waste. So whether that’s by reusing items or just being more conscious about purchases, having less stuff to put out on the curb means there will be less that ends up in landfills or being incinerated. 

Here are some things to consider for reducing your plastic waste TODAY:

  • Request minimum packaging on Amazon.
  • Remember your cloth bags when you go to the grocery store.
  • Pick up a reusable water bottle like a Hydroflask or Nalgene.
  • If you get takeout to eat at home, request that they save the plastic silverware.
  • Buy groceries in bulk.
  • Use Tupperware or metal containers to pack lunch and store leftovers.

More in our climate action series