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Southern Oregon's recycling issues go beyond statistics

Data on the amount of formerly recycled material being landfilled with approval from the Department of Environmental Quality initially doesn’t paint an encouraging portrait for Southern Oregon.

From differing start dates in late October and early November until June 7, Rogue Disposal & Recycling, Rogue Materials Recovery and Southern Oregon Sanitation, Inc. recorded the three highest amounts in tons of material trashed that they once recycled, out of 22 Oregon organizations with similar allowances.

Rogue Disposal & Recycling tops the list: 3,374.83 tons of material collected in recycling bins has gone into its landfill from Nov. 7 to June 7.

But the company — and DEQ — each said numbers alone don’t provide complete information about the state of recycling in Southern Oregon.

Laura Leebrick, Rogue Disposal’s community and governmental affairs manager, said the high numbers are symptomatic of two descriptors of the communities serviced throughout Jackson County: They are some of the more populous in Oregon, and they are also the furthest distance from recycling processors. Those are the centers that sort material for sale in the global market.

“The reason that is significant is because it costs a lot of money to move recyclables,” Leebrick said. “So when we’re having to pay freight costs to send commingled materials up to Portland or the (San Francisco) Bay area ... those costs are borne by local rate payers.”

Across Oregon, communities have chosen different ways to deal with profit-loss in the global recycling market. The turmoil was caused primarily by Chinese importers shutting down their intake, leaving sanitation companies to deal with a massive drop in demand for their recyclables.

Some cities increased rates for recycling pickup to offset the transportation costs of maintaining recycling operations. Recology Ashland took that route at the end of 2017, as have other companies in the Portland metro area. Rogue Disposal and other companies in Oregon opted away from raising rates and instead asked DEQ for “disposal concurrences” allowing them to landfill what is technically considered recyclable material, while also focusing on mitigating the root causes of China’s demur: contamination of that same material.

“We have had pretty dirty material,” Leebrick said about the amount of contamination within Rogue Disposal’s customers’ bins. “So we have not commanded a tremendous amount of market interest.”

Since the start of 2018, then, the company began to take steps to remove non-recyclables from the curbside collection. That process started with identifying how much of the material customers were trying to recycle was not, in fact, recyclable.

A baseline study in March breaking down content in the red-lid bins found that by volume, 52.3 percent of the collected material could be viable for recycling, Leebrick said. The remaining 47.7 percent was either trash, or materials that Rogue Disposal stopped accepting that same month, such as mixed paper or certain plastics.

Rogue Materials Recovery, which runs the distribution center used by Rogue Disposal in White City, used the disposal concurrence to landfill recyclables primarily in the fall, when materials coming from other Oregon counties also left in the lurch had begun piling up in the parking lot, Leebrick said. It has disposed of 2,370.34 tons that way.

Southern Oregon Sanitation didn’t return a phone call for comment. It has landfilled 1,547.51 tons under its concurrence.

Brian Fuller, DEQ’s western region program director, said the department only allows the concurrences when it becomes more expensive for companies to recycle their recyclable materials than to landfill them. Each company has to send monthly data to DEQ to continue with the concurrence.

He said Rogue Disposal’s methods to reduce contamination are similar to those others in the state are employing.

Rogue Disposal is focusing on identifying sources of contamination by using cameras so truck drivers can see what comes out of people’s red-lid bins. The next time a truck returns to that address where contaminants were included, drivers have permission to exit the vehicle and check the contents of that bin. If it has trash or wrong materials again, employees attach an “Oops” tag notifying the bin owner of the error. The bin is left, and those incorrect contents don’t contaminate the whole load.

A list of what can be placed in red-lid bins can be found at roguedisposal.com. Due to ongoing contamination, however, those materials were initially still not able to be recycled.

More recent data Rogue Disposal collected has shown improvement, Leebrick said.

In April, the company was able to market over 90 percent of what it collected curbside, she said, and that improved to 96 percent in May.

Both Leebrick and Fuller said it’s not clear how long the market will remain unwelcoming to U.S. recycling or how well the market may recover. It partly depends on whether residents and businesses also adapt to the changes.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but right now the feedback that we’re getting is our mix is cleaner,” Leebrick said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.

Recycled materials are processed at Rogue Disposal in White City on Oct. 3, 2017. Mail Tribune File Photo