What’s Going On With Recycling In Oregon?

Jun 21, 2018

Most Oregonians pride themselves on being recyclers. After all, our state was a pioneer with the country’s first bottle bill. But, the market for recycling has tightened and many Oregon cities, including Eugene and Springfield, are no longer accepting most plastics for curbside recycling.

Last fall, China said it wouldn’t accept as much stuff for recycling from the United States. Too much of what we were sending them was contaminated, with dirt, or with materials they couldn’t process. Lane County Waste Reduction Specialist Sarah Grimm says there’s a deeply ingrained desire to recycle.

Grimm: “And so we have people saying, what about this? And what about that? Can’t we recycle it? Well, I’ll throw it in just in case. And that is the problem. Because the materials are not allowed. The system wasn’t designed to process newfangled materials that the system didn’t know it existed.”
Grimm says what is being recycled now in Lane County includes paper, cardboard, glass and plastic milk and water jugs. Things like yogurt, soy milk and other plastic containers are not acceptable. So, Grimm says, they need to go in the garbage can.
The majority of Lane County’s garbage ends up here at Short Mountain Landfill south of Eugene.
Hendrix: “Right now we’re driving on garbage.”

Keith Hendrix is Supervisor of Lane County's Short Mountain Landfill.
Credit Rachael McDonald

Keith Hendrix is Supervisor of Lane County’s Short Mountain Landfill.
Hendrix: “All the roads and staging areas and operating areas, tipping areas for the trucks and that sort of thing are built by the operators out of garbage.”
Hendrix takes us to the tipping point, where semi-trucks dump garbage into a pit. Hendrix points to what’s happening in the landfill.
Hendrix: “So that’s a D-8 dozer that pushes the trash to that 836 Compactor. That Compactor is a 118, thousand pound machine. Its job is to pack the waste in as tight as possible. We only have so much air space to fill at the landfill and so the job of that machine is to maximize that air space utilization and pack it in as tight as we can.”
Short Mountain opened in 1976. It takes in about 1-thousand tons of garbage per day Monday through Friday. Hendrix says the landfill still has about 160 years of life left.
Will the addition of things like plastic containers make a big difference here? Waste Reduction Specialist Sarah Grimm says she’s done the math.
Grimm: “The amount of materials that were collected say in one month in early 2017 that are now not allowed amounted to just slightly more than 1.5% of the comingled recycling streams.”
Grimm says since plastic is inert, it’s not contributing to methane emissions at the landfill. She says for most plastics and aluminum the environmental damage happens in the manufacturing process.

Grimm hopes the recycling crisis will encourage people to put pressure on companies about the way they package their products.
Grimm: “To let manufacturers understand that we want to see our materials recycled. And therefore, we need to demand and we need to buy recycled.”
The recycling crisis has spurred some people to make different choices about what they buy. Those who responded to an informal poll on KLCC’s Facebook page say they’re buying more in bulk.
At Eugene’s Growers Market, that’s been a tradition for nearly 50 years. Ruby Matthews is working her volunteer shift at this buying club near the train station.
Matthews: “We offer as many things in bulk as can possibly be found in bulk. And that’s what we encourage. We do have a few packaged items and we mark them up more because that reflects our values.”
Matthews says members of Growers Market bring their own containers and there are extra reusable containers here as well as bags to fill with bulk products.
Matthews: “Any natural food that can be had in bulk, including, of course, shampoos, crème rinses, soaps, dishwashing liquid. The whole gamut.”

Bulk items at Grower's Market in Eugene.
Credit Rachael McDonald

Lane County’s Sarah Grimm says despite the current crisis, recycling makes a big difference.
Grimm: “recycling results in an amazing amount of environmental benefits.”
According to the Department of Environmental Quality, Oregonians recycled 1.4 million tons in 2016. That reduced CO2 emissions to the equivalent of taking 690 thousand cars off the road.  
Grimm: “These materials that we no longer can collect is a small fraction of what we are doing successfully.”
Grimm is hopeful that in a year or two, regional and global recycling markets will find a solution. Meanwhile, she hopes consumers will think more about what they buy and how they dispose of it.

Lanecounty.org/garbageguru

Copyright 2018 KLCC.