For many people in the Northwest, recycling can be as easy as dumping everything that qualifies into a big bin and waiting for it to be taken away.

But where does all that recycling go? That’s what I set out to find when I toured Waste Management’s Woodinville facility.

Waste Management

Semitrucks and large machinery are used to move mixed recycling around the facility. Photo by Karen Miller.

For much of the recycling in our area, it lands at Waste Management’s Cascade Recycling Center, a material recovery facility in Woodinville. I took a tour of that behemoth center where recycling goes to get sorted and put into bales before it becomes post-recycled goods — things like coffee cups, paper, and even benches.

“This industry — this system — works,” said Vicki Christophersen, a lobbyist. Christophersen has been doing tours with Waste Management around the state for journalists, public officials, and others.

We have it pretty good in Washington. Christophersen pointed out that 100 percent of Washingtonians have curbside access to garbage collection, which isn’t the case in other states. Especially when it comes to recycling. Other cities certainly have growing pains when it comes to the process.

Waste Management’s Matt Stearn said the facility in Woodinville runs 18-20 hours a day, Monday-Friday. On Saturdays and Sundays it’s closed for cleaning. Pretty crucial for a place that brings in a lot of what some people deem trash.

Stearn said that not everything can be recycled, but Waste Management tries. About 5-6 percent ends up in a landfill. That’s quite a bit of trash, but in the scheme of things is a pretty low number.

Waste Management

Laborers clad in neon vests work hard to sort mixed recyclables by hand. Photo by Karen Miller.

The inside of the facility in Woodinville is a huge area zig-zagged with conveyor belts and machinery. At the far entrance, a semitruck backs in a load of mixed recyclables that are then moved by heavy equipment before being sorted, baled, shipped, and processed into the recycled goods we see everywhere.

Once the recyclables start to make their way onto the conveyor belts,
I was surprised to find that sorting happened, relatively, by hand. Laborers clad in neon vests and hardhats worked quickly to weed out any non-paper or non-plastic recyclables.

That was the part that stunned me most. In an era of moderation, workers are still very much needed in the process. The facility was humming with people working.

Once the recyclables are sorted, they go through various other stages, the most fascinating of which is when the the recycling is sorted, it goes into bales — just like hay.

Those recyclables are then shipped and processed into recycled goods. For example, your Starbucks red cup may have began its life as a bale of recycled, sorted goods.