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You are recycling wrong.

Yes, you. You specifically, reading this right now. In fact, you've been doing it wrong for a long time.

It didn't used to matter, but global changes in waste handling mean it matters now. And no matter where you live, if you recycle, you're likely going to start paying more because of it.

Blame China. Or don't, really; blame the fact that humans in general are messy bunch and so is the waste we leave behind. China, which had been taking in more than half of the world's recycling, simply complicated matters when the country declared that, beginning this year, it would no longer accept most plastic containers, or any recycled paper with a contamination level above 0.5 percent.

Here's the bottom line: If you live in Albany, Harrisburg, Lebanon, Millersburg, Scio, Sodaville, Adair Village, Corvallis, Monroe, Philomath, Tangent or somewhere in unincorporated Benton County, you're looking at a proposed $2 increase in your trash bill from Republic Services to handle the higher costs for processing recycling.

The Albany City Council plans to discuss that increase during a work session Monday and put it to a vote at its regular meeting Wednesday. 

If you live in Brownsville, Halsey, Sweet Home or unincorporated Linn County, you can expect a similar proposal from Sweet Home Sanitation, although nothing formal has been proposed yet.

And if you live anywhere else — well, just wait. The problem's headed your way, too.

History

From the 1971 Bottle Bill to the 1983 Opportunity to Recycle Act, Oregon has a long and proud history of finding ways to reclaim its waste. The 1983 act had particular implications, requiring curbside recycling to be offered in every Oregon community of at least 4,000 people.

In 1991, Senate Bill 66, known as the Oregon Recycling Act, set a statewide item recovery goal of 50 percent by the year 2000 (that goal was met in 2010, according to the Department of Environmental Quality).

But recycled materials, particularly cardboard and metal, used to be of value to someone; buyers who paid for the products. That drove the recycling industry. That's not the case anymore.

"It used to be a commodity. Last May and June, we got paid a certain amount per ton. We called them buyers, even," said Scott Gagner, site manager for Sweet Home Sanitation. "No longer is it a commodity. It’s kind of a tax."

Reasons for the price drop vary. Petroleum costs are down, which means cheaper production of new plastic bottles and thus less demand for recycled ones. Fewer people are purchasing printed newspapers, which means the market for recycled paper has plunged. SP Newsprint's Newberg mill used to receive all of Republic's paper before its permanent closure two years ago, said Julie Jackson, Republic Service municipal manager.

Also, as the world's biggest consumer of recycled products, China was able to set the bar when it came to pricing. As that country develops its own recycling systems, it needs fewer items imported from abroad — and its willingness to pay for them has dropped accordingly.

Meeting China's new quality specifications — part of a program it's calling National Sword — has been almost impossible for U.S. processors. Entire shiploads of recycled materials have been rejected for contamination, which has led processors to slow conveyor belt speeds and add extra sorters to quality control staffing. That's part of what's driving up costs.

Most Oregon processors are simply going elsewhere. Both Sweet Home Sanitation and Republic Services send their recycling to Pioneer Recycling Services' center in Clackamas, which has stopped dealing with China altogether, Jackson said. Paper is headed to Vietnam and plastics are headed to Canada, the East Coast or whatever markets can be found for them. 

Locally, the swing from the drop in recyclable value combined with the increase in operational costs was about $100 per ton: In March 2017, Republic Services was receiving a commingled recycle rate of $47.68 per ton of materials, Jackson said. By March 2018, it was paying Pioneer $51.80.

Republic is asking cities where it has franchises for the $2 price hike to offset that cost, Jackson said. It doesn't quite cover the current loss, which is about $2.22 per customer, she said, but the company is willing to absorb the rest. "We want to keep recycling," she said.

The alternative is just to toss everything into the landfill and call it good, but even that comes with a cost, Jackson said. Republic is proposing a $1 price hike for landfilling only, as a way to make up the revenue its recycled products used to generate.

Sweet Home Sanitation has seen the $100 swing, too, Gagner said. He said the company, owned by Waste Connections, hasn't worked out a price proposal yet for recycling, but isn't suggesting raising costs for taking everything to the dump.

If the cities Sweet Home Sanitation serves decide to go with landfilling, Gagner said he hopes the situation will be temporary.

"Our local motto here is keeping it green," he said. "That’s what we want to do."

Cleaning up our act

Oregonians badly want to recycle their used goods. Their very zeal is part of the problem.

Every waste hauler or sorter in the state deals by the minute with the results of "wishful" recycling: picking through piles and piles of items that people believe — incorrectly — are either recyclable, or should be.

Those little triangles on the bottom of your plastic containers? The ones surrounding numbers 1 through 7? Those aren't recycling marks. They're labels designating the type of plastic the product contains, nothing more.

Currently, the only plastics Republic will accept are marked 1 or 2. Those are the containers considered "bottles" or "jugs," stuff with narrow necks, like water and syrup and ketchup bottles, or with handles, like jugs of milk or liquid laundry detergent.

Sorters send all the ones marked 3-7 straight to the landfill, including yogurt containers, sour cream tubs, flower pots and clamshell-shaped takeout boxes. You might as well eliminate the middle man and dump them yourself, Jackson said. "When you send them to the processor, that's the most expensive way to throw them away."

The 3 to 7 plastic items are just part of the problem. Then there's the stuff where there was room for doubt, like the waxy, papery containers that hold ice cream, milk, chicken broth or various types of juice or soup. They're called aseptic containers, and they're not recyclable, either. 

Shredded paper? Nope. Nothing smaller than an index card, even. Tiny paper bits become a contaminant if mixed with paper, and there comes a point where the fibers in torn pieces are just too short to make new sheets.

Plastic bags or other types of plastic film? No. Never. Don't even think about it.

In Clackamas, at the recycling center run by Pioneer, crews have to stop the conveyor belts two to three times a day to fish out, by hand, wadded masses of plastic bags that wrap around their rotating shafts. 

The machine is designed to carry large pieces of cardboard and paper forward for baling, while letting smaller items fall through. Each bag that wraps around the shaft reduces the gap, eventually thickening it to the point that more contaminants cross over, forcing extra sorting.

"The more holes are filled in, the more contamination," said Greg Ryan, region manager.

Even the stuff that really can be recycled, and for which there's still a market of sorts — newspapers, cardboard, aluminum cans, plastic milk jugs, glass if kept strictly separate from the commingle bin — can't go through the system if it's contaminated with food residue. China's 0.5 percent standard means a whole bale of paper could be rejected if it's splashed with dribbles of ketchup from a commingled container.

That means everything that goes into the recycling bin has to be rinsed thoroughly and air-dried as much as possible. Pizza boxes, even though made of cardboard, are out entirely: too much chance of being stained with grease or smears of cheese.

None of those issues, however — not the wishful recycling, nor the not-quite-clean-enough materials — can hold a non-recyclable wax candle to the stuff that really contaminates Oregonians' recycling bins.

At Pioneer's Clackamas center, sorters toss thousands of pounds of items that make Ryan shake his head. Soccer balls. Christmas lights. Tire chains. Curtain rods. Clothing.

On this particular day, one bin held the fork of a child's bicycle. "Usually we get the whole bike," Ryan said. "There might be pieces around here somewhere."

The two worst items are used diapers and needles, often insulin needles that have been used by diabetics. Both show up regularly, Ryan said.

"We get gallon jugs just full of needles," he said. "People just throw them in their bins." 

Moving forward

Contamination has been a problem for recyclers since the beginning, both from well-meaning recyclers and from people who just use the bins as a second trash dump.

One suggestion has been to return to the days when home recyclers separated items themselves. That could happen, but it's problematic because the equipment has changed: Trucks with mechanical arms are set up to grab single containers that are dumped into one bin, rather than partitioned into three sections that drivers fill by hand.

Another suggestion has been to step up burning at the incinerator in Brooks, but that's not really an option, said Matthew Marler, business manager of Covanta Marion. Any county wanting to ship material for burning would first have to ask Marion County, he said, and, "essentially, we are full." 

Landfills could become the default destination once again. That's an option both Republic and Sweet Home are offering, though neither like the idea, and both would have to apply for permission from the Department of Environmental Quality — a document called a concurrence — before they can begin.

"We are hoping not to. Our fondest wish is that we don’t ever have to fill that (concurrence form) out," said Jackson, of Republic. "I haven’t talked to one person who’s in favor of landfilling recyclables."

According to its materials, the Oregon Refuse & Recycling Association believes cleaning up the products and removing items that can't be recycled eventually will help improve value and reduce costs. But market demand is what moves materials, and right now, that's the problem.

"The opportunity is, if we can clean it up for some of these other markets around the world, that becomes clean enough for American and domestic recyclers to use," Jackson said. "I think it’s going to take maybe the state and maybe DEQ and other players to step up and say, 'How can we use it here and create jobs here?' But those jobs will cost more than jobs have traditionally cost in China."

Companies agree education is the key to contamination reduction. Locally, representatives from both Republic and Sweet Home Sanitation are updating their websites, producing new brochures, and talking with city government officials, civic organizations and schools to get the message out.

"Until two, three, four months ago, we weren't sure" what restrictions would be, said Gagner of Sweet Home Sanitation.

"Now it’s like, holy cow, we really gotta talk about this."

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