A gritty dust clings to the air, and glass shards on the concrete crunch under your feet as you walk through the dimly lit warehouse that holds the majority of Marion County’s recycling.
Sunlight beams through a large doorway at the end of the building, and a large front-end loader comes into view carrying a pile of recycling that’s about to be sorted.
“There is supposed to be no glass — you can see all the glass,” said Gaelen McAllister, the resource development manager at Garten Services.
At Garten Services, located off of the train tracks in Salem’s industrial district, glass doesn’t belong in their recycling piles. Yet, there is a lot of it. For the 140 people who work at the facility, their job is to take the massive two-story pile of mixed recycling and sort through it for what is desirable on the market.
With the commodities market being generally low across the board at the moment, it’s harder than ever to find a buyer for recycling that can be reworked into a usable product. And with China lowering their contamination limit, it is worthwhile to recycle only some of the plastics that come through the facility.
For Garten Services, items that are not meant to be recycled — like food waste and non-recyclable plastics — are doubling or tripling the cost of running their business.
“That’s what makes it very tricky,” said McAllister.
Garten Services is unlike many recycling facilities — it is a non-profit that employs people with disabilities and provides them with career and retirement options.
While having more contaminated recycling means that the facility needs to employ more workers — helping support more people with disabilities — it also means that there is more cost to do business, and with the value of recycling so low, Garten is losing money.
Oregonians place a high value on recycling. It is a feel-good thing. But what people don’t know is that a lot of the time we do more harm than good when we recycle a product that is either dirty, or has little value on the market. In part, it is the intricacies of how to recycle that have brought us to where we are in terms of planet-wide plastic pollution.
Standing on a metal platform in the center of the facility, the front-line of Garten’s workers presort what the front-loader operator drops onto a belt that snakes its way through the building. It’s one of the first true summer days of the year, but the workers wear long sleeves and handkerchiefs around their heads to protect themselves from sharp metal and glass particles.
One worker picks up a garbage bag and empties the contents onto the conveyor belt — it is a pile of shredded paper. According to McAllister, the shredded paper, had it been recycled properly, would have gone to a paper mill. But someone put it in their curbside recycling, which means that no worker is going to have the time to pick each individual paper shred out of the pile — it will end up going to a landfill.
“Usually, we find something goofy, like a bowling ball,” McAllister says as a baby car seat goes by on the conveyor belt.
“A baby car seat does not belong in recycling,” she said with a chuckle.
At Garten, 16 to 20 percent of all curbside recycling they receive they aren’t able to recycle due due to contamination or lazy recycling. This contributes to an annual trash bill of about $16,000 to $20,000. According to the Republic Services website, “aspirational recycling” is a term that describes the act of tossing something in the recycling in the hopes that it will be recycled somewhere down the line. Basically, recycling without proper knowledge of how recycling works.
“Plastic bags are not supposed to be going in the recycling, but we still get thousands and thousands every day,” said McAllister.
And that’s an issue. Plastic bags and other non-recyclables can clog machines, and cause damage — which leads to more cost for repairs and workers having to go home for days at a time as repairs are made.
The continuing practice of “aspirational recycling” is causing problems for everyone in the recycling business. While it is a great thing to want to help solve the plastic problem, much of what goes in a recycling bin ends up in the landfill anyways.
In a dark corner of the Salem warehouse, tucked away and concealed by stacks of 20,000-pound bales of good recycling, sits a huge pile of dirty or unwanted bales. These bales are not destined for a new life — they are destined for a dirty grave in the Oregon countryside. We have a consumer lifestyle that China isn’t dealing with anymore.
“We were exporting our pollution,” said McAllister.
A world of plastic…
As 2017 drew to a close, China had enough of being burdened with the world’s plastic. They had previously been the dumping ground for the plastic problem, because they could take recyclables and turn a profit — using the plastics coming from Western Europe and the United States to use in manufacturing new products.
However, importing plastics became more of a problem than anything. After decades of receiving contaminated plastic, the country found itself awash in trash. To combat this problem, China reduced the acceptable contamination level for recycling to .5 percent. Contamination refers to recyclables having any food waste, or dirt, that makes it difficult to process into use for another product. This pertains to other recyclables too, such as mixed paper, and glass.
When recyclables are exported to China and they are too contaminated, they end up in a dump — or in the ocean. China, being a massive consumer economy in and of itself, creates a massive amount of plastic as it is, even without the import of plastics from other countries.
China recycles through a largely unregulated network of family owned recycling businesses. The process takes plastic, shreds it, and melts it down to make it useable again — creating pollution that winds up in rivers, streams, the soil, and in the air. A study by Science magazine in 2015 also showed that 30 percent of the plastic pollution in the world’s ocean was attributed to China.
What can we do?
At LBCC there are about two dozen 96-gallon recycling bins located across campus. While our recycling doesn’t end up at Garten, it ends up in a similar facility in Clackamas. This means that the rules about contamination still apply to what we recycle here on campus. And with the large volume of recycling that LBCC creates, it is up to every individual to be aware of what we are putting in each bin.
“If someone put a coffee cup in one of those barrels that says paper, it’s all trash,” said Stacy Braun, assistant facilities director at LBCC.
Republic Services, the company that hauls off our recycling, has recently changed the guidelines for what they are taking for recycling. Just like Garten, they are dealing with the fact that China has sealed its borders to contaminated recycling. For Braun and other facilities administrators this means retraining staff and getting the word out to avoid recycling items that should not be placed in bins.
“It took everyone a long time to be trained on what to recycle. Now, we are having to go back and say, ‘Sorry, we have to retrain you on something different,’” said Braun.
The world is facing a plastic problem — and while it’s daunting, there is hope. But, it lies in knowledge of recycling, and a will to stop supporting single-use plastics.
So, if you are planning on tossing that plastic Starbucks cup into the recycling, think again. Just because it may have a recycling symbol on the bottom, doesn’t mean that recyclers are taking it. Below is a list of what to recycle if you are using LBCC’s bins.
Bottles and jugs, with the caps off. That’s it.
Greeting cards (no foil or glitter)
Bottles and jars
“If in doubt, throw it out,” says Republic Services. And never bag your mixed recycling.
To properly recycle, all plastics that are dirty must be emptied, cleaned, and dried. Some people thinking that this isn’t worth their time must be reminded of the current state of the world’s oceans.
According to a report in Fortune magazine, in 2015 there was an estimated 5.26 trillion pieces of plastic floating around in our oceans. About eight million tons are added each year — the Great Pyramid of Giza weighs in at six million tons and is made of solid rock, not lightweight plastics. This pollution is a threat to the vital marine ecosystems that provide food for global consumption.
For almost three decades we have relied on another country to bear the weight of what we consume — now we have to find our own way to cope with it. In the past we could try to recycle as much as we could, and even if it didn’t end up recycled — at least it wasn’t buried in our soil. Now, however, it very well could be.
“Maybe, the emphasis should have been on reducing,” said Mcallister.
Story by Alex Gaub
Photos by Angela Scott