Tighter recycling restrictions affect not just you, but Goodwill, too

As the city of Tacoma and Pierce County struggle with tighter recycling regulations from overseas, another familiar entity is now feeling the pinch.


What Goodwill is facing is the same as municipalities facing trash and recycling challenges. The global market for recycled glass, plastics, wood and cardboard is shrinking with the restrictions from countries reducing the percentage of allowed contaminated loads.

While they do not want to discourage donations, they do want people to be mindful of donations that they are equipped to take.

Goodwill of the Olympics & Rainier Region recently shared its own cost analysis with The News Tribune:

For its summer season alone (it’s busiest time of the year) out-of-pocket costs for recycle/salvage fees will come to $320,000.

For the full year, its out-of-pocket costs will be around $1.3 million, a 42.3 percent increase in costs compared with 2015.

Those numbers do not include the associated costs to store and transport unsalable items to a landfill.

For Goodwill, that’s money that could have gone to its free education/career programs for the unemployed in the region — a $9 million operation.

The good news is Goodwill Olympics & Rainier Region kept 87 million pounds of household items out of a landfill in 2018, according to its figures.

The bad news is many Goodwill operations are seeing disposal bills rise, with fewer places to send stuff when products don’t sell, or items cannot be sold either for defects or other issues.

“We’ve got to support our jobs training, and we’re putting in so much money in disposing of basically stuff we can’t sell,” Mike McGarvey, director of Operations Goodwill of the Olympics & Rainier Region, told The News Tribune in a recent interview.

Every county has different rates, but for Goodwill on average it works out to be around $110 per ton in disposal costs.

“Many recycling businesses can’t afford to do the level of sorting required now,” he added.

“And now they’re going to be clamping down on metals,” he said. The first round of new restrictions on scrap metals started this summer, with another round expected later this year.

“Our only option is to try to repurpose and use what we can.” He and his team scour trade magazines, hoping to find potential partners to work with, “and talking to other agencies, other recyclers and repurposers and ask, ‘What are you doing?’

He said the team in Tacoma has made calls “as far away as Miami.”

Indeed, a state by state breakdown of what city and county governments are facing nationwide show how the salvage stream has quickly become a widespread challenge. When one state’s facility stops accepting items, another state feels the effects.

“Small and mid-sized municipalities are particularly vulnerable to price increases and program changes. Many stakeholders are working to help stabilize and improve this system, and results are shining through, but a clear path forward has yet to materialize,” according to Waste Dive, a site that monitors national news coverage of the issue, in a report last month.

Infrastructure is being developed to offer stop-gaps, but it’s still early in that process as the industry is still adjusting to the new regulations.

For example, hard plastics, common in toys, is now extremely challenging to offload. Innovations such as converting them for use to make plastic pallets is still years away.

“You can take some of this not-quite pure plastic and mold it into a plastic pallet.”

But the pallets at this time are still too expensive compared with wood.

“We thought we had our plastic sold, then that guy’s firm never got up and going, due to whatever financial considerations and buildout, capital.”

So, here are the types of donations that Goodwill struggles with in this new era of restrictive recycling:

Printers: Up until two years ago they were salvageable, “but with the contamination of metal and other things in the printer, salvagers no longer take those,” McGarvey said. They can salvage the ink cartridges, though.

Broken items, particularly plastics, hangers, toys that are incomplete without all the components, CFLs, empty tanks, such as for propane and helium (“we get hundreds of these a month,” he noted), propane cylinders, broken cups.

Steri-lite or Rubbermaid tubs, unless they are in good resale condition, are not something Goodwill can easily dispose of, either. Often they are made available for Goodwill Outlet shoppers to use to collect/carry their items.

“We still get 50,000 to 80,000 pounds of mixed rigid plastics along with other types of plastics (HDPE, LDPE and PET) that there was once an aftermarket for. Unfortunately, due to restrictions overseas and lack of infrastructure in the U.S. to process these materials, we are forced to dispose,” he said.

Examples of the mixed rigid plastics that’s problematic: old cordless phone chargers battery chargers (with or without batteries. Li-on and other rechargeables are considered household hazardous waste and treated as such).

Other items they aren’t equipped to deal with: Broken desk or office organizers, broken buckets or broken lawn furniture.

Its sorting centers also are not equipped to deal with IKEA furniture.

“We don’t accept IKEA, it has metal ... we don’t have the machinery here to deconstruct and separate,” McGarvey said.

What can be accepted typically has a turnaround sale time of five weeks in Goodwill stores.

If the stores get more donations than they can process, those are boxed up and sent to Goodwill’s storage warehouses, eventually funneled out to stores based on need.

For perspective, Goodwill’s Pine Street processing center alone right now has around 17,000 of these storage boxes, each the size of a large shipping box, stacked to the rafters in its warehouse.

If those items don’t sell, they then go to outlets where items are sold by the pound. If an item still doesn’t sell, that’s when it gets sorted for a final destination — salvage or the landfill.

McGarvey describes the whole challenge as “a slippery slope I am trying to navigate.”

“A donor shows up with 100 pounds of items and clothing, we know that 20 pounds of that is not going to sell or is waste, but we don’t want to discourage them from donating, so we accept all to get the 80 percent. We really don’t want the one-pound Coleman propane canister — we turned in 300 last month, responsibly, and cost us $1,500 — or the cracked laundry hamper,” but he said often the attendees are left with taking and disposing the bad items to get the other items.

The message from McGarvey is simple: “If it didn’t sell at your garage sale, it probably won’t sell at Goodwill.”

For more information, go to Goodwill’s online donation guidelines: https://www.goodwillwa.org/donate/store-guidelines/