Along with most people, I already was aware of the basic changes to the Marion County recycling program prior to today’s Salem City Club program, “What’s Up With Recycling?”
But the expert speakers provided a lot of useful background information, plus some good tips for dealing with the changes.
So here’s some of what I remember from the talks by Peter Spendelow, a recycling specialist and materials management policy analyst for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality; Will Posegate, the chief operations officer for Garten Services; and Alan Pennington, the Waste Reduction Coordinator for Marion County Public Works and head of the EarthWISE program for the county.
(I didn’t take notes, but my still mostly-functioning senior citizen mind believes that I’ve gotten what follows pretty much right.)
Way back when, the early 1990’s I believe, there was no such thing as co-mingled, or mixed, recycling. People sorted their recycled items themselves. But this resulted in low recycling rates.
Now everything goes in the blue bin and recycling is more popular. Not surprisingly, though, a lot of mistakes are made.
Posegate said that bowling balls, propane tanks, milk cartons filled with needles, and all kinds of other nasty forbidden stuff show up in the conveyor belts at Garten Services, where employees have to wear gloves and kevlar protection to keep themselves safe.
One employee spends three hours a day cleaning screens on machinery that sorts out paper, but also gets stuck with flattened plastic and other stuff. So we all need to be careful with what we recycle, since our mistakes have to be dealt with by people who already have a really tough job.
The general rule is “When in doubt, throw it out.” An ancillary rule is “When in doubt, find out.” Meaning, for example, while only tin and aluminum cans are recyclable, some Googling will reveal local places that accept scrap metal.
China’s refusal to stop accepting our poorly sorted-out materials is the main reason for the changes to the Marion County recycling program. It appears this is permanent, since one of the speakers said that China wants a .5% (half a percent) error rate, and the actual rate is much higher — over 10% I recall.
A big screw-up is putting “plastic film” in the recycling bin. It took me a while to figure out that when the speakers referred to this, they basically were talking about plastic bags. The bags gum up sorting machinery, so they are a major no-no. Return them to stores that have a bin for them.
Newspapers are one of the more lucrative items for recyclers, as demand is fairly high for them and other forms of paper. (Shredded paper, though, can't be recycled.)
However, we were told that because the Oregonian no longer publishes daily, and the size of newspapers has shrunk as reporting staff have shrunk and advertising has gone elsewhere, newspapers make up a smaller chunk of recycling materials.
As shown on this handout (click to enlarge), many types of paper and cardboard still can be put in the mixed recycling cart. The biggest change is with plastics, since only bottles and jugs now can be recycled. The numbers on a plastic container no longer have meaning.
A plus, said one of the speakers, is that yogurt containers don’t have to be washed out, since they’re thrown away. Being a daily yogurt consumer, I’ve noticed that convenience.
My wife and I buy ready-made salad in “clamshell” containers, along with strawberries. These used to be recyclable, though not easily. Previously a neighbor would take clamshell containers to a recycling location in Corvallis, so we’d store them up and give them to her periodically.
But those days are gone, so we cram the large salad containers into our kitchen trash bag, then fill the clamshell with other garbage. Not ideal, but we’ve entered into a new age of recycling.
Which feels like a significant step backward.
Hopefully one day future Oregonians will look back on 2018 as a temporary setback for recycling. Perhaps technological advances we can’t foresee from our current vantage point will make recycling super-easy and super-efficient.