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Recycling’s Complex Problem

By Adam Duvernay, Register Guard
Jan 6, 2020

As Lane County begins rolling out new signage and educational packets for multi-family residential facilities, an expectation for a growing population at such complexes means more attention will be required to avoid contamination.

At Forest Hill Apartments in Eugene, there’s frustration that hard work to keep recycling in order can be undone by just a few careless people.

There are nearly 250 apartments there and multiple locations for disposing of residents’ trash and recycling. New residents are handed a packet when they move in detailing what can and cannot be recycled and how it should be sorted. Some residents have taken it upon themselves to see it done right.

“We have residents here who have pride of ownership in their homes even though they’re renting,” said property manager Corina DeMello. “They actively put out fliers about things that are allowed to be put into recycling versus what should go into the garbage. It’s a passion of theirs.”

But even a correctly sorted stash of recycling can easily be contaminated, a problem affecting apartment complexes across Oregon.

“Then all of the hard work of the people who do the recycling here is for nothing because of the commingling factor, and all of the recycling just gets thrown in the landfill,” DeMello said. “I don’t know what we can do … . It would be easier if we had a way of policing it, but we don’t.”

The Department of Environmental Quality in 2018 issued a report that said recycling behavior is not widespread or consistent among multifamily properties. It identified problems such as tenant inconvenience and non-tenant use but also signaled that confusion leads to poor recycling habits.

“In general, it appears tenants are not getting the information or reinforcement they need to encourage them to participate or recycle. In addition, visual cues, such as signs in a few different languages that include images supportive of recycling behavior, are lacking,” read the report.

While local communities have taken action on recycling, there historically has been a lack of unified statewide action to assure access and ease of recycling at multi-tenant apartments where recycling can be more difficult, DEQ Material Recovery Specialist Sanne Stienstra said.

“They don’t have control over their containers. They don’t have control over how much service they have or how often their containers get picked up. They don’t have control over where the containers are or how they’re labeled or anything like that,” Stienstra said.

These factors, along with others such as safety concerns and a small amount of comingling caused by trash pickers, can coalesce as contamination.

“Contamination is one of the top issues for both people living in multi-tenant facilities as well as the property managers,” Stienstra said.

As Oregon cities are preparing to comply with a law requiring recycling offerings at multi-tenant residential sites by July 2022, in Lane County some new attention is being paid to assuring those apartment complexes have the tools to keep their reusable waste uncontaminated. With fewer items now being accepted at recycling centers in the wake of a Chinese pullback from purchasing that waste, the county is making a new push for education.

The county now is offering apartment complex managers signage, trash bin decals and move-in packets focused on assuring tenants understand what is recyclable and what goes in the trash. The county also is starting up pilot programs that would do things such as provide managers reusable bags for storing and sorting recycling for their tenants and setting up plans to track over the following year whether recycling quality improved there.

“Recycling has hit hard times due to the commingled recycling containing so many contaminants — meaning the wrong stuff, like plastics that aren’t recyclable,” said Sarah Grimm, a waste reduction specialist with Lane County Public Works. “Multi-tenant facilities generally have a single collection area everybody uses. We’ve found it’s very inconsistent across the board as to how well the area is labeled what is recycling and what is garbage.”

The DEQ report cites studies in 2016 and 2017 that found about a quarter of materials in multi-tenant recycling didn’t belong. When collectors find contaminated recycling, they sometimes leave it behind for the apartments to re-sort — but more often, the study says, it’s then all just regarded as garbage.

“Property managers usually directed the collector to dispose of contaminated recycling as garbage,” according to the DEQ report.

Providing the educational materials to multi-tenant complexes is part of Lane County’s effort to move into compliance with the law taking effect in 2022, which requires tenants there have the opportunity to use recycling services and that resources for proper recycling be available, Grimm said.

The law only affects properties with more than five units in cities with more than 4,000 people and within those cities’ urban growth boundaries. DEQ projects there will be approximately 16,089 statewide multifamily properties with five or more units in 2022 compared to 14,896 estimated for 2016.

“We have not gotten in trouble for it, but it’s my observation we’ve been slightly out of compliance because we were not doing anything in terms of alerting people that recycling at multi-family units in these areas needs to be provided,” Grimm said. “This program brings us up to speed.”

A sticker on a waste bin clarifying what can be recycled may make it easier for tenants to correctly place their waste, but according to the DEQ study more than half of multi-tenant landlords already provide posters, newsletters and other informational material meant to limit contamination.

DeMello said her Forest Hill Apartments residents benefit from such materials, though contamination still is a regular problem for the complex.

“We try to do our part by putting in their move-in packets a list of what’s acceptable and what isn’t, as far as recycling goes, but people have their own mindsets: Either they don’t care or they do,” DeMello said. “It’s just the people that don’t care who ruin it for everybody else.”

Kristen Bartels and her teams hand out similar fliers at multi-tenant facilities, but her recycling teams do more at those sites because contamination continues despite ongoing education efforts. Team Recycle, of which Bartels is a founding partner, actually sorts through clients’ recycling to make sure it’s uncontaminated by pulling out garbage and toxic materials.

Bartels believes people want recycling to be effective and available, but there’s a lot of work that still has to be done by all involved parties.

“People are still doing a lot of wishful recycling. They don’t realize that these lids and these clam shells and these small containers are no longer recyclable. They’re still putting them in there,” Bartels said. “The unfortunate part of that is, once they’re in the recycling, it is now contaminated.”

With the population of people living in apartment complexes expected to grow in coming years, Stienstra said the need to educate residents and property managers also will grow. Consistent and clear information about how recycling should be done requires multiple partners to do their jobs.

“People who live in multi-tenant properties, the information they get is not always complete or thorough or helpful enough,” Stienstra said. “Education and information can play a big part … but other things like not having enough (garbage) service also affect contamination.”

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