Are you recycling or wish-cycling? Yakima recycling volunteers share stories
Mar 17, 2020
There’s a word for dropping off random things at recycling collection centers: wish-cycling.
The Washington State Department of Ecology defines it this way: “Wish-cycling is when we put items in our recycle bin that we’re unsure are accepted in our local recycling program. Then we just kind of hope that somehow they will be recycled.”
Ecology’s website notes that wish-cycling has created big problems worldwide, including China’s crackdown on the recyclables it will accept. But wish-cycling also has impacts at the local level.
A local hot spot for recycling collection efforts is Wesley United Methodist Church at North 48th Avenue in Yakima, where community members can drop off cardboard, mixed paper, aluminum and tin cans. Signs posted around the area announce the center’s rules and guidelines. But not everyone follows them. And that amounts to more work for the volunteers who keep the center going.
At the crack of dawn on Monday morning last week, about 10 volunteers gathered at the recycling collection center behind the church. Outfitted in winter jackets and heavy duty work gloves, they collected the cardboard offerings strewn outside the collection bins, stomped on unflattened boxes, sorted out garbage tossed into the recycling bins.
The Rev. Shane Moore said volunteers dedicate at least 40 hours a week working at the collection center. Because not everyone follows the posted guidelines, the volunteers’ work is harder, Moore said.
“You can hear about China not taking our recycling, but when you see these issues on a local level, you can understand it better,” he said. “Our guys enjoy doing this, but they want people to follow the rules and respect the time it takes for us to recycle.”
Up and at it
At 6:30 a.m. last Monday, the church’s collection center was a mess. Cardboard covered the black asphalt outside the bins. A plastic exit lamp had been tossed carelessly amid the recyclables. So had garbage.
By 8:30 a.m., the volunteers had the church’s collection center put back together: pounds of aluminum and tin cans packed tightly into plastic bags, piles of trash sorted out, four trailers of cardboard crushed and hauled away, the parking lot swept and tidy.
Dave Sanchez, who has volunteered at the center for the past year and a half, said he considers the work a fun opportunity to connect with others as well as being a public service.
“Everyone knows about the center, because what are the alternatives?” Sanchez said.
Moore said the church has been lucky to develop and maintain strong partnerships with local recycling collection companies. Cardboard and paper go to Michelsen Packaging Co. Pacific Steel handles tin cans, and DLC Recycling accepts the aluminum cans.
Last year, the church center collected 557,980 pounds of cardboard, 452,468 pounds of newspaper, 16,000 pounds of aluminum, 18,759 pounds of shredded paper and 15,960 pounds of steel, a volume of goods that Moore said is enough to fill about 80 semitrailers.
Moore said some people assume the church makes a lot of money from its recycling collection efforts. He said that’s not the case: The church receives a penny for every 2 pounds of tin, and about 25 cents for a pound of aluminum.
The program brings in about $15,000 a year, which goes to support the church’s youth programming, Moore said.
“It’s a lot of money, but it’s not a lot of money for the time and effort we put into it,” he said. “We don’t do it for the money. Creation care, or taking care of the Earth, is part of our values.”
Collection and contamination
Loretta Zammarchi, Yakima’s solid waste and recycling manager, noted in a recent talk at the church that contamination was a reason China cracked down on the recyclables it would accept from the United States in 2017.
Despite multiple signs posted around the recycling collection center and on the receptacles themselves, Moore said Wesley’s volunteers do have to deal with contamination. Sometimes that can involve food-encrusted containers. Other times, people place items that can’t be recycled — trash — into the receptacles, he said.
Dale Kingrey, a Yakima resident who has been helping with the center for more than 21 years, said most community members understand and follow the collection center’s guidelines, but not everyone.
“We have a lot of people who think we’re a landfill,” Kingrey said.
Elmer Bigham, a retired pastor who has volunteered at the collection center for about 25 years, said volunteers once found a dead animal tossed in with the recyclables. The worst drop-off was a mattress covered in bedbugs, he said.
But Bigham said most people he runs into while volunteering are grateful for the center’s existence and try to follow the rules. He has a fond memory of one person who gave the men money and told them to buy themselves doughnuts.
“Most of the people are good. They follow the rules and we get thank-you’s,” he said. “The important thing for us is this is still a mission of the church, an act of protecting creation as best we can.”
In her talk at the church, Zammarchi noted that one contaminated item could cause an entire load to end up in a landfill. Contamination has been an issue for the Terrace Heights landfill, which stopped recycling plastic recyclables about a year ago, said Yakima County Public Services Solid Waste Division Program Coordinator Mikal Heintz.
“Since we stopped accepting plastics about a year ago, we have been actively working to reduce contamination issues of plastics in our other recycling bins,” he said. “But plastics contamination is a continuing problem in our bins.”
Moore said the collection center at Wesley also stopped collecting plastics several years ago. The center still occasionally gets plastic items. What’s unique about Wesley’s program is that volunteers take the time to pick out the trash to salvage the recyclables, Moore said. On that Monday, volunteers had swept a plastic exit light, plastic wrappings and shopping bags into a separate pile, which they disposed of with the church’s trash.
Moore said the church would love more help with its recycling efforts. Right now it has 10 core volunteers.
“Even if you don’t come when we’re working, we could always use help,” he said. “If you’re out here and you see boxes, break them down. If you see trash, take it home and throw it out with your garbage.
“And if you see our guys out here, please thank them.”