Despite recycling more material than ever, Deschutes County still has work to do to catch up with populous counties in the Willamette Valley, according to a new report for the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.
This month, the agency released its annual report on recycling and waste generation in Oregon. The report, which looks at data from 2017, shows an increase of just over half a percentage point in Oregon’s recovery rate — the percentage of qualifying materials that is recovered through methods like recycling or composting — compared to the year before. However, Deschutes County’s rate dropped slightly, from 33.1 to 32.7 percent, and is more than 10 percent below the statewide recovery rate of 42.8 percent.
“We just need to keep doing what we’re doing now, but do more of it, and do it better,” said Timm Schimke, director of solid waste for Deschutes County.
Peter Spendelow, natural resource specialist for DEQ, said Deschutes County recycled nearly 9,000 tons more than it did the previous year. However, more residents and a resurgent construction industry meant it disposed of even more material, contributing to the decline in the overall recycling rate.
Elsewhere in Central Oregon, Crook County’s recovery rate rose from 20.7 percent in 2016 to 23.6 percent in 2017. In Jefferson County, the recovery rate dropped from 31.6 percent in 2016 to 27.9 percent in 2017.
While Spendelow cautioned against reading too much into small year-to-year data shifts, he said Deschutes and other counties east of the Cascades have several factors working against them, from their distance from much of the Northwest’s large-scale recycling infrastructure to smaller populations that keep them from producing enough commercial or industrial material to spawn more local processing.
“In a city of 50,000, you don’t have enough of that sort of activity that someone can make a business out of it,” Spendelow said.
Schimke said most of Deschutes County’s recyclables are eventually transported to the Portland metro area, but sending them over the Cascades costs money. Because the transportation costs are higher than they are for haulers operating in the Willamette Valley, Schimke said, the county has opted not to recycle low-value products, like Styrofoam, that are recyclable in cities like Portland.
The story is similar for certain types of plastics. Phil Torchio, founder of The Broomsmen, a Bend company that handles waste management for weddings and other events, said the market is still strong for the plastic used in water bottles and detergent containers but has declined significantly for lower-grade plastics.
He said the change has been exacerbated by China’s unwillingness to take low-quality recyclables. While more urban areas can afford to keep recycling flimsier plastic, some rural communities have stopped taking them entirely.
“You can’t just assume if it’s plastic, it’s recyclable,” he said.
Deschutes County’s population growth has led to more waste being generated in the community, but that isn’t the entire story. Spendelow said more material is being disposed per capita in Deschutes County as well, which he speculated could be due to the construction industry.
The return of the construction sector, coupled with the closure of several large Oregon mills in Newberg and Oregon City that provided a market for wood products, has led to more wood going into the garbage, Spendelow said.
Finally, Deschutes County’s high volume of tourists and new residents works against it when it comes to recycling. Ani Kasch, program coordinator for Rethink Waste, a waste-reduction program produced by the Environmental Center, said people who come to Bend often don’t know exactly what is and isn’t recyclable in the area.
“We’re a destination town, we get a lot of people from out of town who don’t necessarily know how we do it here,” Kasch said.
Schimke said the county wants to achieve a recovery rate of 45 percent by 2025. To accomplish that, he said Deschutes County is looking at ways to reduce construction waste, including manually sorting through recyclable material sent to Knott Landfill.
Also, Schimke said the county is looking to increase recycling at Bend apartment complexes and is considering expanding curbside recycling to outlying parts of the county that are getting more populous.
Despite the systemic challenges Deschutes County faces, Kasch said, individuals can always do more.
A pilot program aimed at curbing food waste that Bend Garbage & Recycling and Cascade Disposal have partnered on is a good start toward getting food out of the landfill, but residents can be proactive by reducing the amount of food they waste in the first place, Kasch said.
Kasch encouraged residents to use reusable bags at the grocery store and pay close attention to what can and can’t be recycled in curbside bins.
“I’m a believer that people can change their habits,” Kasch said.
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