By Beth Casper
Recycling was so much easier last year.
Marion County residents filled their mixed recycling carts with the expectation that everything inside was put to good use as new products.
But China’s demand last winter that our recyclables not be contaminated with trash revealed the truth: our mixed recycling carts are not a recycler’s gold mine. To find the items that can actually be recycled, you have to sort through a lot of garbage.
“Our image as good recyclers came crashing down,” said Alan Pennington, waste reduction coordinator for Marion County. “To be good recyclers, we have to be careful about what’s put in the recycling cart–not just fill it. It might have been easier in the past, but it was a fantasy.”
So now Marion County residents–like folks around the state–are grappling with a new, stricter set of rules around the mixed recycling cart. Recycling processors have already seen improvement. But it needs to get significantly better before China would consider buying our recyclables again.
In the meantime, recyclers are scrambling to find other markets for the materials, hiring more people and buying better equipment to sort the recyclables and spreading new recycle messages in every way they can.
“If Salem-area residents can weather this recycling reset–and I think they can–they can keep their title as best recyclers in the state,” said Pennington.
Inside the mixed recycling cart
There are two main problems in the mixed recycling carts.
First, they are too contaminated with actual garbage. Plastic bags, diapers, garden hoses, peanut butter jars smeared with peanut butter. Those things were never meant to be in the recycling bin.
Second, lots of items put in the mixed recycling cart are not recyclable but look like they could be. Those items are just “wishful thinking,” said Kevin Hines, general manager of the Mid-Valley Garbage and Recycling Association, which represents seven haulers in the Salem area.
“Wishful thinking” items include plastic containers for everything from cupcakes to apples. They often sport the chasing arrows recycling symbol, which confuses people because they assume that the product is recyclable.
“There are chasing arrows on all kinds of products that aren’t recyclable,” Hines said. “There are chasing arrows on Styrofoam.”
Since the mixed recycling carts first hit the curb in 2001, consumers have seen the number and type of plastic containers in the stores skyrocket.
“In 2001, it was virtually unheard of to find peanut butter in a plastic jar–they were all glass,” Pennington said. “Now there are shelves full of plastic peanut butter jars.”
It’s not just peanut butter. Almost every kind of food imaginable has a plastic container now.
“Each plastic is a different recipe,” said Gaelen McAllister of Garten Services, one of two recycling processors for Marion County’s mixed recycling bins. “Some recipes are easy to melt down and make new products and some aren’t.”
Even people immersed in the recycling field can’t say if a shampoo bottle or other kind of plastic container bought in 2018 is recyclable unless they hold it in their hands.
“More and more plastics have been invented,” said McAllister, Garten Services’ resource development manager. “Years ago, you wouldn’t see fruit in all these clamshells. Sometimes that’s #2 and sometimes #4 plastic. And we can’t tell the difference when they go by on the (recycling processing) line.”
In general, recyclers can find a market for #1 and #2 plastics. But with the invention of new mixes of plastics and new forms (clamshells for apples, for example), it’s not always the case that a #1 plastic is recyclable.
But haulers and processors accepted all plastics for two reasons:
First, China accepted it. And second, it was simple for people to understand. When the recycling roll carts came to residents, people were told to put in plastic bottles and tubs labeled with a recycle symbol and a number from #1 to #7.
The quickest way to get people to give up on recycling is to make it confusing, experts say. So no one in the industry wants to change the message about what’s recyclable or give too many exceptions to the rule.
“The more confusing it gets, the less people recycle,” said McAllister.
China’s sorting work
There was no need to change the recycling message when China took almost two-thirds of the county’s recyclables.
As recently as 2 years ago, when nonrecyclable plastic bottles, Styrofoam or plastic shopping bags made it to China as part of a load of recyclables, Chinese workers pulled out those items and trashed them. They sorted out the #3, #4, #6 and #7 plastics–the stuff that might not have had a market.
“Instead of us sorting out the plastics that were truly recyclable, we were selling a bundle of mixed plastics to China,” said McAllister. “China would sort it out and trash the plastics that weren’t recyclable.”
It wasn’t worth the confusion to change the message about what could be recycled. And with new plastic containers coming out regularly, it simply wasn’t practical to put out new posters and new messaging to educate residents about what can be in the mixed recycling cart.
Plus it was cheap to send mixed plastics to China on ships that had just delivered products to the United States and otherwise would be returning empty.
“There was a market for it and we were able to get rid of it, so it wasn’t a problem,” McAllister said. “But according to China, it was a problem. That plastic was burned or tossed into the ocean.”
At first—in 2013—China cracked down on contamination and asked sources to provide material that didn’t have as much actual trash accidentally mixed in.
Because Garten Services has such an extensive machine and hand-sorting system, it didn’t have a problem meeting that standard.
Last winter, though, China stopped accepting items that had more than one-half of 1 percent contamination.
Most processing facilities are able to reduce contamination levels from about 13 percent to 2 or 3 percent.
Because China had been such a reliable longtime buyer, there were no local markets left for these materials. With no place for them to go, recyclables piled up.
“We used to get paid for these recycling materials,” said Hines, who represents Salem-area haulers. “Today we are paying to get rid of it.”
In the past, haulers got up to $30 a ton for recyclables, McAllister said.
“Even last fall, haulers brought in $10 to $12 a ton,” she said. “Now they are being charged $100 a ton.”
The cost reflects the work: processing the material has gotten so much harder and more time-intensive. Garten has slowed down their processing lines and added people along the conveyor belts to sort through the materials–they pull out trash and “wishful thinking” items, for example.
Before January, Garten had one part-time person who intermittently looked inside recycling trucks to make sure the loads weren’t overloaded with trash. Now, they’ve added three more people trained to look inside the trucks, McAllister said. If a load contains too much trash, the hauler gets charged.
Finding places to send the recyclables has become a non-stop endeavor.
“Our recycling manager and operations managers have to be on the phone all the time and make it work so we can afford it,” McAllister said. “It changes from week to week. There are tons of material and we are trying to find homes for it.”
Local mills accept paper and cardboard. Indonesia and other places in SE Asia have taken much of the rest.
“So far, to my surprise, we’ve been able to find movement for all the materials we’ve been generating but at dramatically lower prices,” said Dave Claugus, vice-president of Pioneer Recycling Services, which accepts about half of Marion County’s recyclables. “For mixed paper, we have movement but it’s at a net cost. So even after we sort it and bale it, we still have to pay to get it recycled. It used to be the other way around. Last year the mills were paying us, this year we are paying them.”
Since mills that are accepting materials are an uncommon find these days, they can afford to be picky.
“Because China stopped accepting materials, the places that are accepting can be very picky about contamination,” McAllister said. “No food, no liquid, no trash. We are passing that message along to residents: Make sure you’re recycling empty, clean and dry things that belong in the mixed recycling cart.”
Recycle Right: Reduce and reuse first
The Mid-Valley Garbage and Recycling Association, Garten Services, and Marion County have been working diligently since January to make sure the message to recyclers is clear: recycle right.
Only empty, clean and dry materials can be in the recycling bins. For plastics–the most confusing of the recyclable items–recycling experts are telling residents that only plastic bottles and jugs can go in. Clear posters with pictures tell residents to trash these plastics: cups, tubs like cottage cheese and yogurt, jars, clamshells and take-out trays.
The recycle-right messages are working.
“It is getting 1 to 2 percent cleaner,” McAllister said about the recycling loads. “We do sample auditing and it is getting cleaner.”
McAllister and Hines hope that these new rules make it very clear to residents though: reduce and reuses are better alternatives than recycle anyway.
When people throw every plastic container in the recycle bin, there is no reason for them to rethink their purchases.
“The more people are recycling, the more they feel good about buying things in containers that they normally wouldn’t,” she said. “Now people are asking themselves, ‘Is this packaging required for me to eat this food?’”
But until manufacturers agree to produce only easily recyclable items, consumers are going to have to do their homework when purchasing items.
Marketing folks want people to believe their product and its packaging is eco-friendly, McAllister said. So packaging may look similar to easily recyclable items–like milk jugs–or have phrases or symbols that make it look green.
“The confusion is not an accident,” she said. “There is a whole marketing strategy around greenwashing. It is to the manufacturer’s benefit to make consumers believe that their product is recyclable.”
Recycling industry leaders want some of the responsibility for the disposal of these items in the hands of the people who make them.
“It really starts from the manufacturing,” said Hines. “What types of materials they make their product out of is what’s at issue.”
Until then, it’s up to the consumers to purchase less, know what’s recyclable and clean out their plastic bottles and jugs before tossing them in the mixed recycling cart.
“We are in a difficult period in recycling,” said Claugus of Pioneer Recycling. “But recycling is still strong and viable. Pricing will get better. And this is still a very worthwhile activity for our communities. Our hope is that residents will do a better job at sorting the proper materials into the recycle carts and the processors will get better at providing cleaner materials to the mills that make new products.”