A dust-up between the Washington County government and a Southern California recycling company highlights the continuing confusion and controversy surrounding the county's new Recycle+ program, which kicks off in less than a month.
Green Impact Plastics, based in Vernon, California, sent a sternly worded email to the county after company leaders learned that Washington County cited the company as a partner on a website for its new recycling program.
In reality, the county is not directly partnered with Green Impact, a fact that the company's chief executive spelled out in no uncertain terms late last month.
"The website states that Green Impact will be recycling certain materials that are collected through this new program. This is untrue, and I am writing to request that you immediately remove any reference to Green Impact from your website," wrote the company's chief executive Octavio Victal in an email to Washington County on May 28.
"The implication that Green Impact is in any way connected with or endorsing this new program is untrue and entirely inappropriate," the email continues. "Needless to say, I was surprised and alarmed to see my company used on an official government website in such a misleading and inaccurate manner."
The county quickly removed the reference to Green Impact on its website and clarified that the miscommunication stemmed from the fact that the company often buys plastics from the local company with which the county is actually partnered: Far West Recycling, based in Portland.
"The confusion with Green Impact stemmed from the fact that the county does not directly handle or manage any recycling; Far West Recycling does," said Wendy Gordon, the county's public health spokesperson. "The county has no direct relationship with Green Impact. Far West Recycling manages and maintains relationships with a variety of recycling brokers and end markets regardless of where the materials are collected."
The episode isn't the only controversy surrounding the county's new Recycling+ program, which is set to launch on July 1.
Last year, Washington County filed a legal complaint against Seattle-based Ridwell Inc., which collects similar kinds of recyclable materials from residential customers — ones that aren't included in the regular materials collected by the county's franchised waste haulers.
Customers pay Ridwell a monthly subscription to get a box in which they can put hard-to-recycle materials, like batteries, textiles and lightbulbs. Ridwell drivers then come collect the materials directly and then haul them to the recycler's Northeast Portland warehouse.
Washington County said in its complaint that Ridwell's service violated its charter, which requires waste haulers to have a certificate from the county in order to operate. The government contracts with regional waste haulers to operate in certain regions of the county — the model that Oregon and Washington County have used for trash and recycling services for decades.
Ridwell was forced to cease operations in the county by this past January.
Days after that deadline passed, Ridwell sued Washington County in federal court, saying that the move was being done to shield local monopolies by the contracted waste haulers and stifle outside competition.
Ridwell's position is that because it collects materials that aren't part of the county's recycling program run by the franchised haulers, providing its service isn't a violation of Oregon law or the county's charter.
In response, Washington County issued a temporary rule allowing companies like Ridwell to operate without a certificate, so long as they're collecting materials that aren't part of the normal recycling service.
However, the county also took steps to create its own Recycle+ program, which expands the recycling service to include materials that Ridwell was collecting. The company says the county's abrupt move to set up the Recycle+ program effectively barred Ridwell from continuing to operate in Washington County, even with the temporary rule in place.
Ridwell has continued to operate in Portland and in cities in Washington County — which the board of commissioners do not have jurisdiction over. Portland issued a similar ordinance as Washington County, allowing services like Ridwell to operate outside of the franchise system as long as they collect different materials.
At its April 26 meeting where the county board voted to instate the recycling program, numerous members of the public spoke out against the county's program. Many of them said they were Ridwell customers who are satisfied with their service and want the option of sticking with it.
Now, however, Washington County has spearheaded its own recycling program that adds these same kinds of materials to its haulers' contracts.
The existing waste haulers will be managing the new Recycle+ program, not county staff — though the program was created by county officials. Haulers will use their existing vehicles and equipment, and each hauler has purchased its own stock of purple 20-gallon bins to give to residents who pay for the new service.
Participation in Recycle+ is voluntary. It's also not available countywide.
Recycle+ is only available to residential customers who live in urban unincorporated areas of the county. Residents of cities — like Beaverton, Hillsboro, Tigard, Forest Grove and others — or in rural areas of the county, such as Laurel or Manning, won't have access to the service.
For anyone who cannot or chooses not to participate in Recycle+, their waste collection services will remain unchanged.
County officials and haulers say that the Recycle+ may expand as it gets off and running, and it will need to quickly adapt to changing market conditions.
"The reason these materials are not included in standard mixed recycling is because they are challenging to sort out of the mixed recycling and because, in some cases, the end markets are new and limited," said Gordon. "Any interruption in an end market for these materials may require the county to adjust what can be collected by haulers via Recycle+."
The new collections will accept plastic film bags, plastic No. 1 clamshell containers, textiles like clothing and bed linens, and compact fluorescent bulbs.
Customers themselves will sort each kind of material into plastic bags that are included as part of the service — to reduce cross-contamination of materials, an important selling point in finding markets for the materials to be accepted, officials say.
Speaking of cross-contamination, those plastic clamshells must be clear, not opaque or colored. Customers must also clean them of food residue before putting them into the bags.
Kristen Leichner, president of Pride Disposal & Recycling Company, noted that residents must also put fluorescent lightbulbs into their own resealable bags, not the ones provided by haulers.
Those who opt into the service will pay a $2.50 monthly base fee, then be charged per pickup from the purple curbside bin. If the pickup is right on the curb by your other bins, it's $9.25. If the haulers have to walk to another part of your property to pick up the bin, it's a few dollars more, though that rule does not apply to customers with disabilities who may be unable to bring the bins to the curb.
The purple, lidded bins just started arriving at the haulers this week, Leichner said, and Pride and other haulers in the county are already looking at how to get a similar expanded recycling service in other jurisdictions where they operate.
"Our goal is to have this program available in all the service areas that we provide service to, but each one will be handled individually," she said.
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