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When RECYCLING really ISN'T

Cardboard, plastic milk jugs, newspapers and cans that customers place in Rogue Disposal’s curbside-recycling bins are being dumped in the landfill, contrary to statements made on the company’s website and in fliers.

“Most go to the landfill,” confirmed Garry Penning, spokesman for Rogue Disposal. Just a small number of “test” loads are currently being sent to recycling processing centers to assess how well local residents keep contamination such as Styrofoam or plastic garden hoses out of their bins.

Unless you live in Talent or Ashland, which are serviced by Recology Ashland, what you curbside-recycle in Medford, Jackson County, Central Point, Jacksonville and Phoenix heads directly to the Dry Creek Landfill.

From November through February, Rogue Disposal dumped 2,700 tons of recyclables in the landfill under a six-month waiver granted by the state. Southern Oregon Sanitation, which serves other cities and areas in Jackson and Josephine counties, also has a state waiver.

Shake-ups in worldwide recycling markets have sent shock waves through the valley, leaving many customers confused as to what’s really being recycled.

On Rogue Disposal’s website, it states the company is “refocusing our program on what we know can be recycled rather than landfilled.” It then displays a list of what you can deposit in the company’s red-topped bins. The website doesn’t say that the vast majority of the red-bin recyclables end up being hauled to the landfill. Instead it states, “Here’s what you can recycle at the curb.”

A large postal card sent to customers about the newly pared-down list of recyclables in March states, “Global markets for a number of items we used to accept at the curb are gone, so we are refocusing our program on materials we know CAN be recycled ... .” In fact, for the most part, those materials aren’t being recycled at all.

“We currently have sent a test load to a processing facility, and we are awaiting the results back from their analysis of that material to see how much contamination is present,” Penning explained in an email sent Thursday. If the test is successful, Rogue Disposal in the future might be able to sell those recyclables, which are still a commodity in domestic markets.

With that hope in mind, Rogue Disposal encourages customers to continue placing corrugated cardboard, newspapers, capless milk jugs and lid-free tin and aluminum cans in their red bins, and to be aware that the company does not allow those bins to be used for garbage.

Rogue Disposal will continue education efforts and conduct audits to ensure the materials placed in customers’ red bins aren’t being contaminated, Penning said. Contamination can include materials that aren’t accepted, such as plastic bags and Styrofoam; accepted materials that haven’t been rinsed properly; and jugs with caps or cans with lids, for example. Some processing facilities have reported problems with items like garden hoses that can gum up the machinery.

Rogue Disposal customers have had a high rate of contamination in the past, Penning said. Recycling processors have complained to Rogue Disposal that they are seeing contamination rates of 24 to 40 percent, he said.

Out of the 19 disposal companies in Oregon that sought waivers last October from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality to dump recyclables in a landfill, Rogue Disposal is the largest. Others on the waiver list locally service Eagle Point, Rogue River, Gold Hill, Shady Cove, Butte Falls, Grants Pass and Jackson and Josephine counties’ rural residents. Elsewhere, Baker City, La Grande, Pendleton and Roseburg are on the list, along with Klamath, Crook and Umatilla counties.

Of the 19 on the list, 12 haulers have ongoing waivers and the remainder asked for a one-time waiver for a short duration. There are 165 garbage haulers in the state, the DEQ says.

Even if Rogue Disposal could send its recyclables to the processors, Penning said there is no guarantee that the items would end up being recycled because of unpredictable market conditions. The commodity market for recyclables doesn’t look good for the foreseeable future, with the price paid for cardboard dropping almost in half since last year.

“The market situation has not gotten any better,” Penning said.

Recology customers in Ashland and Talent are paying more to ensure their recycled materials are actually being recycled, but Penning said his company doesn’t have any plans to ask for rate increases to help recycle more items.

“We don’t want to raise our rates and charge for recycling that may not be recycled,” he said.

Beginning in January, the price for an average curbside pickup for Recology increased $1.90, to $22.82. In the quarter beginning April 1, the price will go up another penny. By contrast, Rogue Disposal charges $19.44 for an average monthly service, though some customers are opting for larger trash bins because fewer items are eligible to be placed in the red bins.

Recology has a long list of items that can be recycled curbside, including magazines, rigid plastic butter-type tubs, cereal and cracker boxes, junk mail, office paper and paper bags.

“A lot of people are confused right now,” said Jamie Rosenthal, waste zero specialist at Recology.

Previously, Rogue Disposal collected recycling materials that were sent to other places, including China. But on Jan. 1, China imposed a new ban on 24 types of solid waste, including unsorted paper and certain kinds of plastic, including plastic bottles. On March 1, the restrictions became tighter, with China imposing a 0.5 percent maximum contamination rate for mixed paper and plastic.

Recology not only picks up recycling but has the facilities to process it for sale on the commodity market. Rogue Disposal doesn’t have a processing facility.

The materials from Recology could end up being bought domestically or in overseas markets that include India, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Last year, Recology was sending 60 percent of its mixed paper to China. This year, it has sent almost none of its mixed paper to China.

“They’ve been kind of warning us,” Rosenthal said. “They’ve just really put their foot down and we’ve adjusted accordingly.”

While the local Recology is dwarfed in size compared to Rogue Disposal, it is part of a larger company that services big cities such as San Francisco and Seattle. Ashland and Talent represent 2 percent of the 700,000-customer market of Recology.

As a bigger company, Recology has been preparing for the downturn in demand for recyclables and recently bought a processing facility in Samoa, California, sending materials there beginning in January.

To pay for this new recycling program, Recology has received approvals from both Ashland and Talent to potentially increase prices a total of $3.50 a month, depending on market conditions.

“We told them we’re paying hand-over-fist, so we either can put the material into the landfill or apply a recycling surcharge,” Rosenthal said. “They said ‘yes’ (to the surcharge).”

If Recology needs more than $3.50, it will have to take the request to the city councils in both those cities.

Rogue Disposal couldn’t access the same Samoa processing plant, even though Recology has an agreement with Rogue Disposal to use the Dry Creek Landfill.

“That particular facility (Samoa), we’re putting an extra burden on them,” Rosenthal said. “They’re at their maximum for taking on more material.”

She said her company is also in discussions to develop a program that might allow recycling of plastic bags, which are currently not accepted. Trex, the company that makes plastic decking materials, is interested in using the recycled bags in its products.

With Recology still accepting recycling, it has faced a new problem.

“Our resources are already being overwhelmed with people coming to Ashland to recycle,” Rosenthal said.

If people from other towns continue to bring recyclables to Ashland, Recology may have to institute some kind of identification check, she said.

“We wish we could take in other people’s recycling, but we can’t,” she said.

While Recology explores new avenues for recycling, Rogue Disposal doesn’t have the same flexibility because it is a smaller company.

Penning said Rogue Disposal has looked at building a processing facility in the past but to make it economical, it would have to bring in 10 times the volume of recyclables.

He said the facilities are expensive, using optical scanners and robotics to sort through materials.

Rogue Disposal’s waiver from the state expires on May 1, but it will likely get another three-month waiver after that.

DEQ has been following the Chinese restrictions of plastics and unsorted paper closely while trying to work with many rural haulers such as Rogue Disposal that are now in a bind.

“I would say you are one of the hardest hit areas in the state,” said Brian Fuller, program manager for DEQ’s western region materials.

Costs to dispose in a landfill are averaging about $50 a ton, but the cost to recycle material is $100 to $140, he said.

Many rural disposal companies are located a considerable distance from the recycling processing plants.

“We’re seeing it in the more rural parts of the state, where disposal costs are cheap and trucking recyclables to Portland is expensive,” Fuller said.

Because of the increased costs, the DEQ is agreeing with haulers that it isn’t cost effective for them to recycle, though the agency expects Rogue Disposal and other haulers to create a plan going forward.

Despite the problem, Oregon as a whole is still a big recycling state.

In 2016, 1.4 million tons were recycled, but since the waivers were granted last October, the haulers have dumped 8,305 tons of recyclables in landfills.

“Of those haulers, Rogue Disposal is currently the largest one volume wise,” Fuller said.

Removing contamination from the recycling stream will become more important going forward with a tight commodity market.

Fuller said he expects Rogue Disposal will develop a plan that will greatly reduce the contamination in its recyclables and find processing facilities that will take the materials.

“We’d like to see them move to that market as soon as they can,” he said.

Medford Councilor Mike Zarosinski said the City Council would like to see the recycling effort continue, while understanding the global market is forcing Rogue Disposal to change the way it does business.

“Over the next few months, we’ll evaluate what their response is,” he said.

— Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on www.twitter.com/reporterdm.

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Valley View Transfer Station in Ashland accepts commingled recycling. - Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune
David Duarte of Talent recycles at the Ashland Recycling Center on Wednesday. - Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch