Most Astorians have embraced expanded curbside recycling.
Since a program for the pickup of glass, yard debris and compost rolled out in September, Astoria has been diverting around 30 tons of material a month. Recology, which collects trash and recycling in the city, reports there are 2,300 compost and glass customers, putting participation in the new curbside collection program at about 70 percent.
“It’s proving to be a pretty good program,” Carl Peters, Recology’s general manager for the region, told Astoria city councilors during a presentation Tuesday.
But a situation unfolding in China over the past year could complicate the future of recycling programs.
China, which recycles around half of the world’s paper and plastics products, announced last summer that it would no longer take 24 varieties of solid waste. The ban went into effect Jan. 1 and includes common types of plastic and paper sent from the U.S. to China.
National Public Radio reports that the U.S. exports about one-third of its recycling, half of which ends up in China. Disposal sites and plants in many Western nations are now experiencing huge backups.
For companies in the garbage business, the decision by the Chinese government to crack down on foreign waste has made recycling more complicated and more expensive. Recology is no exception, Peters said. Private trash companies used to be able to make some money off recycled materials by selling bales to countries like China. But the new measures come with new costs. More people must be on the line to ensure items are clean, slowing down the entire sorting and packing process. The Portland-area companies that process recycling for Recology are taking a hit.
They are paying to recycle, Peters said.
Trash is a market and has its own fluctuations, but Peters said he hasn’t seen a downturn quite like this one in his 31 years in the business.
When City Councilor Zetty Nemlowill asked what a ban in China could mean for Astoria, Peters said, “In a lot of places in Portland right now it’s actually cheaper for me to throw (recyclable material) away than to recycle it. But we don’t do that.”
Communities have invested decades into educating the public and putting recycling systems in place.
“Just because it’s become inconvenient … because now maybe there’s a cost associated with it, it is not a good enough reason to start throwing it away,” Peters said.
He added, “I don’t see a time now or even in the near future where I’ll come up in front of you and say, ‘We’ve got to throw it away.’”
Recology hopes to continue to invest in Astoria and provide more education about recycling options. On Tuesday, Peters introduced Rhonda Green, who will be the company’s waste zero specialist in Astoria. It is not a new position, but in the past it has functioned more as a public relations job. With Green, the company hopes to get back into the schools with recycling programs and education and to work with local businesses to audit their waste streams. They also hope to continue building participation in the curbside recycling program.
“I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect 100 percent of people to participate,” Peters said. A participation rate of 80 percent would be ideal, though.
The new bins showed up in August and pickup began in September. While people are able to opt out of the program, they are not able to opt out of the increased fees that go along with it. The curbside pickup options added a few dollars to a customer’s bill. Astoria residents can still bring glass and other recycling as well as yard debris to the transfer station off Williamsport Road themselves and forgo the new bins. When former general manager Fred Stemmler discussed the program with the City Council last year, he said the company expected around 10 to 20 percent of customers might decline one or both carts. He expected the program would build gradually.
City Councilor Cindy Price and Mayor Arline LaMear had voted against the changes, with Price saying she was concerned about where people would put the extra bins and the havoc a windy or stormy day could cause, especially for people living on Astoria’s steeper hillsides.
Wander any of Astoria’s neighborhoods, and many residents have clearly struggled to find a way to pack all the bins in one place. The old commingled recycling and new yard debris bins are especially large. If people also have opted for larger garbage bins, it can get even more crowded.
But it’s been a mild winter, Price said Tuesday. Tipped-over receptacles have not been a major issue, though lack of space has been challenging at her house and at others in her neighborhood, she said.
Peters has said he will look into options for small containers and report back to the city.