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It's not easy being green

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If you sometimes stand before your curbside recycling cart or a Dumpster and sigh in pure confusion, you’re not alone.

Even the professionals get mixed up at times.

“It’s confusing for us, too,” said Laura Leebrick, governmental and community affairs manager for Rogue Disposal, as she stood beside the bins at the company’s recycling depot off Table Rock Road in White City Wednesday morning.

But even as an ever-more-turbulent global recycling market continually delivers shock waves up the system, with Chinese ports now completely closed, local waste management companies and their customers are making progress to adjust to the new recycling normal.

“Through this whole process, I was very impressed with how emotionally attached people are to recycling,” said Denise Barnes, recycling and community outreach coordinator for Rogue Disposal.

“Recycling is religion in Oregon,” Leebrick said. “It is all over the West Coast.”

The sound of her voice was occasionally punctuated by breaking glass or clanking tin cans as customers pulled up and deposited their items in the respective bins. Those bins remain one of the few options customers have to avoid landfilling some items, in addition to glass depots around Jackson County.

Officials with Rogue Disposal, which services Medford, Central Point, Phoenix, Jacksonville and the county addresses surrounding them, readily acknowledge that the company’s decision to strictly limit what customers can place in curbside bins was initially deeply unpopular.

“We were definitely under a very uncomfortable microscope for quite a while,” Leebrick said.

After about a year and a half of confusion, complaints and inconvenience, however, Southern Oregon waste haulers have some encouraging news: as customers learn and embrace the limited demands of a once-welcoming market, across the Rogue Valley many are coming into compliance or reducing their overall waste production.

The result? Local waste haulers are able to move accepted and clean items to materials recovery facilities, where they’re more likely to be recycled than disposed of in a landfill near or far.

Southern Oregon Sanitation, which covers Douglas and Josephine counties as well as rural areas in Jackson County, was the last local company using a waiver from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality that allowed it to landfill recyclable material. It ended its waiver at the beginning of April, according to the DEQ.

“I think a big piece of it is showing customers the bigger picture, why it’s so important to keep contamination out of the mix,” said Colleen Kaylor, spokeswoman for the company.

Customers get smarter about recycling

Rogue Disposal, Southern Oregon Sanitation and Recology, which services Ashland and Talent, relied on audits of the waste they collected to determine the marketability of their material, as well as to identify ongoing points of confusion from customers about what is accepted.

A year’s worth of quarterly audits of Rogue Disposal’s commingled recycling collection shows customers are increasingly adhering to the list of items that the company is able to market.

The first audit (which involved Leebrick and Barnes sifting through recycled materials dumped on the floor of the transfer station) in March 2018 revealed that marketable material made up just 52% of the samples; the rest was 23% items that are no longer accepted and 25% was straight garbage.

Barnes said they were “horrified” by the discovery.

By December 2018, those numbers had improved: discontinued materials and garbage shrunk to 14% and 13%, respectively, and 73% of the material was marketable.

Leebrick said Rogue Disposal is still finalizing data from its most recent audit, conducted in March.

“Customers are doing the right thing,” she said. “I still hear from people who hope that things change ... but clearly, people are complying.”

The progress isn’t limited to Rogue Disposal, however. Southern Oregon Sanitation also has seen significant enough improvement in its customers’ curbside bin contents to be able to send material to regional processors again, Kaylor said.

Its audits tracked geographical areas to pinpoint contamination levels by location.

The areas with the highest contamination rates fell from 19% to just below 9% from January to April 2019, Kaylor said.

“Across all service areas where we offer curbside recycling in Josephine and Jackson counties, we are still seeing an average of about 10% household trash contamination in the recycle carts,” she said.

All three companies have relied on education to help customers know how to clean up their own recycling streams. Route drivers have been assigned new duties, including checking the contents of curbside carts and, if they find contaminants, leaving tags telling customers what prevented their carts from being picked up.

Some pay more for curbside

SOS and Recology have asked customers to shell out more for their pickup service.

Recology asked its municipalities to approve a surcharge in 2017, which both Talent and Ashland city councils did.

Talent approved up to a $3.50-per-month raise in cost in December 2017.

“The cities of Ashland and Talent decided, yes we do want to continue to recycle, we don’t want that material to go into the landfill, and we’re willing to pay more for it,” said Jamie Rosenthal, waste zero specialist with Recology.

She said the rate surcharges are meant to make up for increased costs to the company to send its material to a Northern California materials recovery facility. It is also owned by Recology, which spans the West Coast.

Rosenthal said that the facility sorts material in a different way than most regional processors, which allows Recology Ashland to not restrict items like Rogue Disposal and Southern Oregon Sanitation have.

Those restrictions initially raised concern among residents who were worried about fitting items they used to put in their recycling carts into their trash carts. Customers suggested Rogue Disposal offer some kind of discount on additional trash pickup.

Leebrick said customer service employees fielding calls about those concerns worked with callers to point them to ways to reduce their overall waste production.

Reduction, reuse are key

All companies said that reduction and reuse remain more important overall to sustainability than recycling, a statement echoed by DEQ officials.

Brian Fuller, western regional manager, said that he predicts prices for recyclables will remain low, as any efforts to build up domestic markets will take years.

“It’s a buyers’ market right now, they can be very choosy as to the quality of the material they want to get as well as who they want to get it from,” he said. “We’ll see further effort to try to educate consumers on how to reduce their waste, or to make sure they’re putting the right material in the bins.”

Rogue Disposal and Southern Oregon Sanitation have both created guides on their websites for customers to look up what to do with specific items.

Recology, meanwhile, has helped support the “Lend Me a Plate” program, which established by Southern Oregon Master Recyclers in Action. (Corrected)

Through the program, you can rent for free enough dishware, flatware and napkins to accommodate 100 people. Call 541-482-1471 to find out more.

Rosenthal said in a way, the shutdown in demand has been a kind of wakeup call for companies as well as customers.

“Here we are at this spot where we’re realizing, wow, recycling costs money, recycling is expensive, is really recycling as great as we thought it was all along?” she said. “Or should we be considering reducing and reusing? And I think the answer is, yes.”

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

A previous version of this article credited the "Lend Me a Plate" program to Recology Ashland. It was established by the Southern Oregon Master Recyclers in Action.

Think you've mastered recycling? Take our quiz to find out.

Recycling or trash?

After recycling markets crashed in 2017, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality allowed waste haulers to dump recyclables into landfills through temporary agreements. The DEQ issued 26 such agreements since Sept. 1, 2017, according to a March 4 report.

Southern Oregon waste haulers landfilled the highest tonnages in the state, the report showed. That includes Rogue Disposal, Southern Oregon Sanitation and Rogue Materials Recovery, the company that owns the White City transfer station that takes in waste from a variety of haulers, including Recology Ashland.

Rogue Disposal and Southern Oregon Sanitation officials both said because they are again able to market their collected recycling (Rogue Disposal claims 100 percent of materials since June 2018, and Southern Oregon Sanitation since April 1), they no longer use their waivers and the waivers have expired.

Rogue Disposal’s landfilled materials totaled 3,399 tons since fall 2017. Southern Oregon Sanitation landfilled 3,409 tons and Rogue Materials Recovery landfilled another 2,370 tons.

DEQ officials said that was a result of a disadvantaged geographical location that puts the companies far from any materials recovery facilities.

From Sept.1, 2017, until Jan. 31, 2019, the 26 companies with waivers deposited 15,388 tons of material into landfills.

DEQ estimates that represents only 2 percent of the material collected for recycling in that time period, however.

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneDenise Barnes pulls a bag off trash mixed with plastics from a container at Rogue Disposal as Laura Leebrink how certain types of plastic are not acceptable.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneRogue Disposal’s Laura Leebrink talks about how 25% of what is pickup from curbside recyclable containers is trash.