Do you think you can recycle that takeaway container? What about the plastic tub your berries came in? A small single serve yogurt? The tray your microwaveable dinner came on? Nope, times four.
All across the high desert, well-meaning Oregonians try to reduce their carbon footprint through recycling. Plastics coded with numbers, paper plates, newspapers, takeout containers and colored glass are dutifully sorted, placed into containers and whisked away. The proud consumer rinses their hands clean and commends themselves for a job well done—all the while unknowingly contributing to a growing recycling conundrum.
"The number one thing we see in the co-mingle (a snazzy term for your blue box) that consumers think is recyclable but isn't, are plastic clamshells," says Ryan Sagan, operations manager at Deschutes Recycling. "They should go in the trash." Clamshells, whether they house your takeout, your berries or tomatoes, are currently not accepted because they melt at a higher temperature than other plastics. Plus, they are usually coated with food matter, adhesive stickers or labels. "Disposable plates, utensils and straws are another myth, because even if they are paper, they are usually lined with a film of plastic or they are covered in food matter. Which leads us to the other dirty problem: contamination."
"Rinse and swish, rinse and swish and... rinse and swish," says Chad Centola, operations manager at Deschutes County Solid Waste. "If you can't send it in clean, then don't put it in the recycling bin. The biggest problem is contamination, whether it's leftover food particles or half-filled juice containers." Lids and caps of said containers need to be removed and placed in the trash—they jam up the conveyor bin once it hits Portland, where most of our recycling ends up. Plastic bags jam things up, too.
"The funniest thing we see are people placing their recyclables into plastic bags," says Centola. "We can't recycle them, so it voids the process." Instead, reuse your plastic bags for pet waste or bring them to participating grocery stores such as Safeway, where they're sent off to be recycled into plastic decking, fencing and furniture.
If your cue to recycling plastics is linked to those tiny numbers on the bottom of your goods, know that some of those items are not currently accepted in your curbside recycling. But to avoid future confusion, we've compiled a complete guide to recycling plastics in C.O on page 13. Pin it on your fridge and try your best—and if something isn't recyclable, the alternative is to purchase a product that does contain renewable, compostable or recyclable packaging.
What about glass? Although curbside single-stream recycling is easiest, it may not be the best solution. The fastest, most efficient way a bottle is reused is when bottles are sorted by color—something that only happens when you take it to a bottle drop off. With the increase of your deposit changing from 5 cents to 10 as of this month, there's an extra incentive.
Deschutes Recycling accepts many other items (many of them free) so instead of throwing electronics, (e-waste), batteries or paint into your garbage bin, recycle it instead. There's no sorting process at southeast Bend's Knott Landfill, (apart from a quick visual scan) so whatever you decide to throw in the bin, goes in.
Everything else is compressed and shipped away—currently to Portland, Idaho or California. Of course, the rate which everything is recycled once it makes it to those facilities is disputed, and a two-year investigation by the Basel Action Network, a Seattle-based e-waste watchdog group, found that your e-waste may just be exported to China, rather than being recycled. After all, recycling although the best option for the environment, is still a privatized $236 billion industry— and that's just in the U.S.
With Knott Landfill slated to reach capacity by 2029, consciously reducing our waste should be a priority. When asked what he noticed had increased in recent years, Sagan from Deschutes Recycling laughed and said, "Moving boxes. We've definitely noticed an increase in those." Centola chimes in, "If you want to see how good your local economy is doing, then just look at your landfill."