Marion County, OR residents–like folks around the state–are grappling with a new, stricter set of rules around the mixed recycling cart. Recycling processors have already seen improvement. But it needs to get significantly better before China would consider buying our recyclables again.

In the meantime, recyclers are scrambling to find other markets for the materials, hiring more people and buying better equipment to sort the recyclables and spreading new recycle messages in every way they can. “If Salem-area residents can weather this recycling reset–and I think they can–they can keep their title as best recyclers in the state,” said Pennington.

There are two main problems in the mixed recycling carts. First, they are too contaminated with actual garbage. Plastic bags, diapers, garden hoses, peanut butter jars smeared with peanut butter. Those things were never meant to be in the recycling bin. Second, lots of items put in the mixed recycling cart are not recyclable but look like they could be. Those items are just “wishful thinking,” said Kevin Hines, general manager of the Mid-Valley Garbage and Recycling Association, which represents seven haulers in the Salem area. “Wishful thinking” items include plastic containers for everything from cupcakes to apples. They often sport the chasing arrows recycling symbol, which confuses people because they assume that the product is recyclable. “There are chasing arrows on all kinds of products that aren’t recyclable,” Hines said. “There are chasing arrows on Styrofoam.”

Since the mixed recycling carts first hit the curb in 2001, consumers have seen the number and type of plastic containers in the stores skyrocket. “In 2001, it was virtually unheard of to find peanut butter in a plastic jar–they were all glass,” Pennington said. “Now there are shelves full of plastic peanut butter jars.” It’s not just peanut butter. Almost every kind of food imaginable has a plastic container now. “Each plastic is a different recipe,” said Gaelen McAllister of Garten Services, one of two recycling processors for Marion County’s mixed recycling bins. “Some recipes are easy to melt down and make new products and some aren’t.”

Even people immersed in the recycling field can’t say if a shampoo bottle or other kind of plastic container bought in 2018 is recyclable unless they hold it in their hands. “More and more plastics have been invented,” said McAllister, Garten Services’ resource development manager. “Years ago, you wouldn’t see fruit in all these clamshells. Sometimes that’s #2 and sometimes #4 plastic. And we can’t tell the difference when they go by on the (recycling processing) line.”

In general, recyclers can find a market for #1 and  #2 plastics. But with the invention of new mixes of plastics and new forms (clamshells for apples, for example), it’s not always the case that a #1 plastic is recyclable. But haulers and processors accepted all plastics for two reasons: First, China accepted it. And second, it was simple for people to understand. When the recycling roll carts came to residents, people were told to put in plastic bottles and tubs labeled with a recycle symbol and a number from #1 to #7.

The quickest way to get people to give up on recycling is to make it confusing, experts say. So no one in the industry wants to change the message about what’s recyclable or give too many exceptions to the rule. “The more confusing it gets, the less people recycle,” said McAllister.

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