200 tons of recycling piles up at MSS
When China banned the import of unsorted, mixed paper and scrap plastics at the beginning of the year, recyclers around the world, including in Jefferson County and Oregon, began feeling the effects of the ban.
At Madras Sanitary Service, which serves 3,635 customers in and around Madras, bales of material ready for recycling started to pile up. The business currently has an extra 200 tons of materials.
To cover that backlog of materials, or just the increased costs of recycling in the future, Melanie Widmer, president and co-owner of Madras Sanitary Service, asked the Madras City Council for its recommendation regarding a rate increase at the council's July 24 meeting.
"One proposal was a 3 percent increase, paying for the cost of the program going forward," she said. "The other proposal was a 4 percent increase, which would cover the cost of recycling about 200 tons backlog of materials we haven't shipped out yet."
Under the first proposal, Madras Sanitary would ask the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality for a "disposal concurrence," to dispose of the material in a landfill, which the DEQ calls "a short-term stopgap solution."
"When all options to find markets for recyclable commodities have been exhausted, DEQ concurs that landfilling these materials on a temporary basis is an unfortunate, but needed option at this time," the Oregon DEQ noted in an update on "disposal concurrences" on July 23.
The Madras City Council supported the first proposal. "They opted to apply for the concurrence to dispose of it," said Widmer, who will contact the DEQ to go through the "disposal concurrence" process.
Since Sept. 1, 2017, the state has had 26 disposal concurrences, with 11,490 tons of previously recyclable material disposed from Sept. 1, through June 30. That represents less than 2 percent of all the materials collected for recycling in the state.
"It's mostly the rural companies that are having a harder time," Widmer pointed out. "In the Portland metro area, they're closer to the processor."
The DEQ's explanation noted, "Some communities — especially those in rural parts of the state — have been disproportionally affected due to the added expense of transporting materials to processors in other parts of the states."
Among the disposal companies in Central and Eastern Oregon that have already had a concurrence are Prineville Disposal, which has disposed of 361.96 tons of material; Hood River Recycle and Transfer Station (716.64 tons); The Dalles Transfer Station (577.03 tons); and Baker Sanitary Service (47.37 tons).
"The mixed recyclables that we pick up from residences are so much work for the processor," said Widmer, pointing out that there are only a handful of processors in the entire state. "They're a little more work for us, but a lot more work for the processor — the material recovery facility."
"We used to get about $30 a ton for recycling, and now the cost would be about $150 that we have to pay; that's changed the economics of the program, so we'll have to raise the rates to keep the program going," she said. "Everybody is scrambling to figure out where to go from here."
"Part of what's happened over the years is we've had paper mills that have handled the paper products, but the products are dirty, so those facilities are in Asia now," Widmer explained. "Why it works economically is that China ships so much to the U.S. that they have all these empty ships going back, so it's easier to take the recyclables over."
"We're still shipping recyclables to other Asian countries, but no country has the capacity that China does," she said. "What they've communicated was a lot of stuff was contaminated. They want contaminants to be no more than one-half of 1 percent, and no facility has been able to get it that clean. We're obviously nowhere close to that."
One study in the Portland area found that the recyclable materials had about 9 percent contamination.
Widmer attributes the contamination to people's desire to recycle more. "There's a lot of wishful recycling — things people wish were recyclable, like toys, chairs," she said. "Sometimes the material is just dirty, like pizza boxes with cheese on them, or a plastic jug that contains food residue. Some of it's just garbage; people put stuff in the wrong cart."
Madras Sanitary has two depots for recycling — one next to their office at 1778 NW Mill St., which is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and one at the Box Canyon Transfer Station, at 1760 SE McTaggart Road, which is open Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
At the depots, they accept corrugated and noncorrugated cardboard, newspaper, magazines and catalogs, mixed paper, clean glass, clean tin and aluminum cans with labels removed, and plastic bottles and jugs with neck openings smaller than the base. They do not accept waxed cardboard, plastic tubs, lids, styrofoam, fast food containers, other plastics, such as clear clamshell containers, metals other than tin or aluminum cans, or plastic bags or materials in bags.
Explaining why Madras Sanitary doesn't accept plastic tubs or milk cartons, Widmer said that she wasn't confident about the market for those things. "I know that the plastics market is the most challenged right now," she said. "Part of the challenge with plastics is every different kind needs a different process, so you have to have a critical mass."
Recycling milk cartons can also be challenging, she said, adding that she attended an industry meeting July 26, in Portland, where one of the processors was trying to collect enough cartons to send to be recycled, "but they became worthless, because they were covered in mold."
Ideally, Widmer would like to see people making better choices about packaging. "If we go back and look at the hierarchy of reduce, reuse and recycle, and start with reducing what we use and paying attention to packaging and what kind of waste we're generating to start with, that will cut down on what we need to find a way to recycle."
Widmer will return to the Madras City Council on Aug. 28, to ask for approval for the 3 percent increase. Madras Sanitary has not increased its rates in more than seven years, she said.
Currently, customers pay $21.72 per month for weekly pickup of a 32-gallon trash container; that would increase to $22.37. Weekly pickup of 95 gallons would increase from $49.33 per month to $50.81.
"(The business) has grown a lot over the last few years," said Widmer.
Within the city of Madras, there are now 1,597 customers who would be affected by the proposed increase. Another 2,038 customers are located outside the city limits, and wouldn't be affected by the increase.