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Recycling restrictions

Recent changes to curbside bins for Rogue Disposal and Recycling have been a bone of contention in the little more than a week since they began as customers grapple to understand what can and can’t go in their red-lid bins.

Rogue Disposal officials spent much of the week taking calls from confused, frustrated customers who learned, as of March 1, that commingled bins could only be used for newspaper, corrugated cardboard, “milk jug” soft plastic style containers and tin cans.

In a nutshell, no more plastic, paper or glass in the curbside containers.

The changes stem from China putting new restrictions on the types of materials it will accept because of high levels of contaminated garbage and non-recyclables mixed with materials shipped there for recycling.

After years of taking recyclables to a transfer station near his home in Nevada, Phoenix resident Chuck Lacey said the commingled bin was a welcome convenience when he moved to the Rogue Valley last June.

Lacey said this past week proved upsetting, as a lifelong recycler throwing glass and plastic in his regular trash bin.

“Is there really no recycling company anywhere on the West Coast that can step up and take this material? What did we do with our recyclables before China?” Lacey said he wondered.

“I’m a child of the sixties and seventies so I’ve been recycling for as long as I can remember, and my kids grew up recycling, too, so it’s pretty frustrating for all of us. I’m really shocked because I thought Oregon was supposed to be the green state.”

While it seems counter-productive to limit the list of items that can be recycled, Rogue Disposal community affairs manager Laura Leebrick, explained that the carbon footprint of sending tainted batches of recyclables to other countries is far higher when recyclable items are rendered unusable due to non-recyclables, greasy pizza boxes or broken glass mixed in.

Prior to March 1, Leebrick said Rogue Disposal had been the only program in Oregon to allow glass in commingled collection bins. She sympathized and admitted even she had set some plastic containers aside, struggling with the thought of tossing them into household trash.

Leebrick said, while it seems recycling programs in other areas still accept a wider range of items, similar changes are inevitable for programs up and down the West Coast. Rogue Disposal, she noted, took the initiative to implement changes sooner than later and hoped to increase education on the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” concept.

“None of us want to continue paying more and more in our monthly garbage bill to send trashy unusable recyclables to other parts of the country or to China. We had very, very high call volumes on Monday but it’s slowed down through the week,” she said.

“A lot of people calling were asking clarifying questions and what we’re being told is that what people were doing before, under the old rules, was probably incorrect.”

Leebrick noted, “Everyone’s got blood on their hands in this. Shame on China for accepting so much garbage for so many years without saying anything. Shame on the processors for seeing garbage in the recycling for so many years and sending it anyway … This is everyone’s problem and it’s going to take everyone to make a change.”

Leebrick said a 12-percent rate increase in January 2017 was intended to manage handling of recyclables, but never covered the quantity of non-recyclables that customers tossed into red-lid bins.

West Medford resident Randi Brock said her household, which uses the largest available trash bin, would miss being able to recycle plastics from her cleaning business and said her household filled her recycle bin each collection period.

“We make a lot of garbage in our house and we were able to recycle a lot of it before. This whole thing where they’re not going to be accepting so many things puts a huge economic toll on a lot of households,” Brock said.

“ ’Get bigger cans,’ they say. We already have the biggest can. Why not have prices go down, since they raised it when they said we could recycle more than before? How about pick up an extra bag or two from households that need it? I understand the conundrum they’re in, but it’s going to do a number on the city when we start seeing way more illegal dumping.”

Leebrick said a focus on education, teaching customers how to recycle properly and offering drop-off locations for glass and paper were part of initial plans to ease the transition to more effective programs.

“Recycling is not going to get us out of the mess we’re in and, frankly, if we’re going to recycle then we need to do it correctly. If one person doesn’t follow the rules, then all the stuff that someone else took the time to clean and sort properly is rejected because that one person did it wrong,” she said.

“In the U.S., we use a huge percentage of the world's resources and we create a whole lot of waste period. If we can get people to be accountable for the waste they generate, we can begin to solve the problem.”

She added, “One of the things I really hope comes out of this crisis is that we encourage people not to make so much garbage in the first place and then you don’t even have to figure out what to do with it.”

— Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. Email her at buffyp76@yahoo.com.

Chuck Lacey, of Phoenix, recycles at Ray's Food Place in Phoenix on Saturday. [Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch]