Sept. 14, 2019 — One of the more positive changes that have occurred in the past 25 years regarding human interactions with the planet has been in the area of recycling.
The first widely recognized effort to begin to address the damage caused by people to planet Earth took place on the first Earth Day celebration in 1970. During the 1970s, recycling began a slow rise from less than 1 percent of materials being recycled, to a measurable increase on a yearly basis.
That number continued to grow with recycling percentages rising from 10 percent in the 1980s to 25 percent in the 1990s. By the time the new millennia arrived, recycle rates had risen to more than 30 percent nationwide as nearly every municipality offered some form of curbside recycling with more than 9,000 voluntary programs in place nationwide.
The trend continued, with rates in 2015 at approximately 35 percent.
Those numbers show Americans have embraced, to a certain degree, the idea that resources are not endless and the disposal of waste materials had consequences. People also seemed to understand the disposal methods used to remove waste was severely damaging eco-systems throughout the world.
That mildly encouraging paradigm changed dramatically in 2016, with China’s announcement that it would no longer accept most plastic resin types from waste management companies and haulers in the United States. That decision completely altered the manner in which America recycled.
Overnight, it essentially eliminated the single largest processing destination for the vast majority of America’s plastic waste. This change has forced cities and towns across the country to reassess the way that they handle plastic waste and how best to put in place a system moving forward that will allow individuals and municipalities to engage in some level of recycling.
Locally, that decision prompted major changes in the way Florence residents had been dealing with plastic for more than a decade.
In the recent past, local waste haulers had been able to take all types of recyclable materials in the large bins labeled “comingled.” This included tin cans, fiber-based materials like newspaper and cardboard and most types of plastic.
Now, the removal of a majority of plastic from the list of materials accepted by local waste haulers has created a situation that is ripe with confusion and has led many residents to simply stop recycling.
On Thursday evening at the Siuslaw Public Library, representatives from Florence Master Recyclers, Lane County Waste Management, the City of Florence and the activist group Precious Plastics Florence presented the 50 or so individuals in attendance with a new plan to address the change in what can be recycled and the manner in which it could be done.
Earlier this year, Lane County Waste Management organized a “Plastic Round-up” which was a deemed a success. The event asked individuals to drop off certain clean, label-free plastic resin types at the Glenwood Transfer Station in Eugene.
There were limitations on what could be dropped off, but response to the round-up was good, with more than 1,000 drop-offs occurring with eight tons of plastic recycled.
One of the few downsides to this event was that a number of people who made the trip to drop off their plastic were turned away because of the type of plastic returned or the cleanliness of the items.
This was one reason why Lane County decided to shift from a wide-ranging collection model, to one where there can be direct oversight by an individual familiar with the many different types of resins in use.
Pat Benefield is one of the leaders of the Florence Master Recyclers and her presentation Thursday evening highlighted the new county initiative designed to allow individuals and small groups to collect, prep and drop-off acceptable plastic resin types at their convenience.
“We are still collecting 2, 4 and 5s,” Benefield said about the types of plastic that can be recycled by the group. “These are the resin types we have been collecting all along.”
Benefield then shared the information on the Lane County site regarding the Round-up and why the decision was made to require trained, “Community Collectors” to coordinate collection efforts moving forward.
“We are hoping to get a number of individuals from tonight’s meeting interested in becoming community coordinators,” she said. “And if you are not into plastics, there are plenty of things you can do to help the environment, help our town and help each other.”
Benefield encouraged attendees to consider collecting from their immediate network of friends and families.
“You can do it with just the neighbors on either side of you, you can do it in a gated community. The important thing, I think, is for one person to determine that they want to be the collector and that person leads the other people they want to work with,” she said.
The Lane County website has a tab dedicated to Waste Management and the county has posted the rationale used to shift the program from a day-specific event to a more flexible model. The site states that Lane County will not be holding another one-day round-up due primarily to information gathered during the event, which showed 72 percent of the attendees collected for their household only.
The carbon impacts created by more than 1,000 vehicles driving from around Lane County to the Glenwood Transfer Station was a main reason for the change in collections. Another reason was the thought expressed by county staff that it would be more beneficial and more productive to have a number of community collectors who can direct smaller, group-oriented collections with flexibility in the times that accepted items could be dropped off.
During the meeting on Sept. 12, people posed a number of questions to the panel on the specifics of what can and cannot be currently recycled at county facilities.
Answers were taken directly from the county website, which state the following materials must be clean (adhesive labels removed) and sorted in the following material categories: No. 2 bottles and jugs; No. 2 tubs and lids; No. 4 bottles, tubs and lids; and No. 5 bottles, tubs and lids.
Depending on what materials you have, this could represent up to four separate categories.
More than one attendee mentioned the main impediment to becoming a trained collector was the amount of space needed to collect and store the plastic collected.
Since this lack of space for storage was an issue express by numerous people, it became apparent that a concerted effort to find an individual or organization in the Florence area was needed to assure the success of the new program.
Another issue brought up for discussion by more than one individual was the issue of labels. The problem with most labels is they work very well. The adhesive used to affix the paper or polymer that tells what is in the container stays in place, sometimes after repeated attempts at removal. The remaining residue from the adhesive will often clog or damage sorting and shredding efforts and is one of the major problems encountered by county and local haulers.
“One of the things people were most concerned with during the Lane County Round-up was labels,” Benefield said. “Labels are not the easiest thing to get off a piece of plastic, that’s where the ‘What else can we do?’ comes in. We need to get to the manufacturer and say to them if you are going to put a label on here, it needs to come off easily or don’t put a label on it, make it a part of the container, like yogurt containers.”
This concern with the removal of labels was addressed by Ruth Miller, the panel representative from Florence Precious Plastics, an organization formed in the wake of the change in recycling rules for Florence.
“We do a class on the third Saturday of each month where we help people learn how to prep different kinds of plastic, including ways to get the label off and ways to cut around them. On the fourth Thursday, we have classes on what you can do with the plastic besides shredding it,” Miller said.
Local waste haulers Central Coast Disposal and County Transfer and Recycling do accept a limited number of plastic resin types, which are delineated on the websites for each company. Lane County Waste Management also has extensive information and illustrations designed to provide visual keys to current recycling guidelines.
Master Recyclers of Florence and Precious Plastics also have websites that offer advice, tips and strategies for reducing and reusing items we might consider throwing away. There is also a column called Trash Talk on the Florence Master recycler site that updates the community on new ideas and interesting circumstances relevant to recycling and reducing waste.