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WasteNot: What’s up with recycling?

There seems to be some added confusion about where recycling is going these days. If you live in Ashland or Talent, there have been no changes to your curbside recycling service — thanks to the city councilors from these two communities who voted recently to approve a fee increase to recycling to allow a continuation of the same services.

We are the lucky ones in Jackson County because the other cities outside of Talent and Ashland may put out their commingle recycle carts but that material is headed to the Dry Creek Landfill until changes in market opportunities become available. In the meantime, these customers can take separated recycle materials to Rogue Disposal's Recycle Center in White City to be recycled. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality(DEQ) has permitted Rogue Disposal and Southern Oregon Sanitation to landfill the material that they had been picked up for recycling curbside. The hope is that this is a temporary situation. They have permission from DEQ to do this for six months, with a 3 month check-in and monthly reporting requirements.

As you may know the recycling industry in the United States has been ignoring China’s requests for several years to clean up its act by literally reducing contamination (garbage) to provide cleaner and consequently more valuable material. If you have ever peered into a recycle cart, chances are good that you would see "mistakenly" discarded unrinsed containers, food scraps, wet paper and unacceptable plastics into blue recycling carts "hoping" they will be recycled.

Recently, China finally drew a deep line in the sand and closed the door to the U.S. and other countries addicted to using them as a dumping ground for dirty recycling (more accurately known as trash). Even though the U.S. has had since the 1970s to build processing facilities to recycle the materials we generate, the lack of facilities at home has fueled exportation as the predominate path for plastics and paper.

So, where does the trail of our recycling go? Ashland and Talent’s commingle recycling (blue cart curbside) remains unchanged. Glass is still collected separately in the blue or gray bin and transported to Portland to be recycled into glass again.

Your blue roll cart gets picked up curbside and dumped in the recycle truck. Your recycle driver hauls the recycling to the Valley View Transfer Station. From there it is top loaded into a transfer trailer (the long rectangular boxes pulled by 18 wheelers). From there it is loaded and shipped loose (not compacted) and driven to a new Recology Material Recovery Facility (MRF) in Samoa, California (near Eureka).

The MRF then "positive sorts" the material. This new "positive sorting process" is much slower, more labor intensive and costly. One of the rewards is that the finished bales are very clean and easier to sell. By removing the contamination in the U.S. (it goes to one of our landfills), a high quality product has been created. The “recycling” that China was rejecting was clean mixed with bad. “Bad” is the dirty unacceptable material (trash), that this process remedies. Depending on the commodity — paper, cardboard, metal or plastic — the material (commodity) is shipped to a variety of markets in China, Southeast Asia and India.

Since the markets can fluctuate from one day to the next, the determination for where a particular commodity goes can vary quite a bit.

Fortunately, our cardboard stays in Oregon for the most part and is processed into new products in Toledo or Springfield. Metal is also recycled in Oregon. Half of paper generated is recycled in Oregon and the other half is exported. Plastics are exported.

I hope this information helps you to connect the dots and illuminate how costly our current practices are and maybe you will be inspired to double check what materials can go in the commingle recycling. Costs to recycle will likely continue to rise. You and I can help to get the word out and let others know and encourage them to heed the realities of recycling.

It is still true that our highest and very best efforts are focused wholeheartedly on changing our buying habits as much as possible to reduce what needs to be recycled or landfilled. Let’s put into action everyday the opportunities we have to reduce and re-use just a little bit more.

Editor's note: Rogue Disposal, which serves much of the Rogue Valley (but not Ashland and Talent), announced Tuesday it will only accept four items in its red-lidded recycling bins: newspapers; corrugated cardboard; white or clear milk jugs (no lids); and aluminum and tin cans (no lids).

—Risa Buck has served on the Ashland Conservation Commission and in waste prevention education for more than a dozen years. You may reach her through betling@dailytidings.com. Find past WasteNot columns online at bit.ly/rbwastenot.