What happens when someone announces a new idea — call it “Earth Day” — and 20 million people show up? That’s what happened April 22, 1970, when the folks behind the creation of the day encouraged everyone from politicians to students to take notice of environmental degradation in their neighborhoods,
their towns, states – the Earth.
On Monday, 43 years later, Earth Day continues and recycling has become a key element.
In Curry County alone, enormous piles of cardboard, tin cans and plastic, bales of newspaper and mixed detritus from hundreds of households line the storage house walls at Curry Transfer and Recycling in Brookings.
It’s all headed to Portland, 24 bales to a truck, six or seven trucks a week.
The trash company added recycling to its options for customers in 1990 when the state mandated jurisdictions with more than 4,000 people in population to do so.
In the beginning, it was aluminum cans, corrugated cardboard and certain plastics and only brown and clear glass – all of which had to be kept separate from one another to prevent cross-contamination, said CTR site manager Ken Wold.
Now, every day, in one neighborhood or another, blue Curry Transfer and Recycling boxes line the sidewalks, often overflowing with cardboard, metal cans, milk jugs, newspaper and other recyclables.
CTR diverts 27 percent of material from landfills to plants and mills, more than six hours away, in what was thought in the late 1960s to be a way to “save the environment.”
Once in Portland, the co-mingled material is dumped onto huge conveyor belts that jiggle out the small matter, sort items by weight and are eventually hand-picked to separate the different recyclables – kind of a reverse manufacturing line.
From there, plants and mills sell their material to companies that make a myriad of items: carpet from milk jugs, shingles from plastic containers, cereal boxes from newspaper.
Recycling isn’t just a feel-good thing. In Oregon, it’s required by law.
The DEQ has set a quota for Curry County to divert 30 percent of its household waste to recycling, said CTR recycling manager Candie Wilk.
Curry County isn’t quite there, hovering at about 27 percent – representing 6,235 tons of recyclables in 2011. The state average is a whopping 50 percent.
“But for a rural area, we’re at, or a little higher, than most other rural counties,” Wilk said.
“Back in the day, we were at 18 percent and struggling for 24 percent,” Wold said.
And those numbers, however, don’t include the numerous private – and inadvertent – recycling done here, Wilk said.
Examples include the 10:10 scrap metal recycling site next door to CTR. Or landscapers who mulch the branches they cut. It doesn’t include all the cans and bottles turned in for their 5-cent deposits. Or the electronics recycled by Rays and Itrex, or the paint recycling done by Kerr’s Ace Hardware. There’s frying oil that gets transformed into fuel, used motor oil – and glass, which CTR grinds and uses in aggregate. The Port of Brookings Harbor does its own recycling as well.
Add all that into the mix, and the amount – and percentage of which is diverted from the landfill in White City – is much higher.
For all its popularity, however, recycling is not a profitable venture; many municipal recycling centers operate at a loss. When CTR’s recycling end of the business loses money, it is made up with fees people pay for trash collection.
Some recyclables, like corrugated cardboard, are in high demand and are of superior quality that lend themselves to recycling. Aluminum and other metals are lucrative, Wilk said.
But some plastics and pressboard cardboard – cereal boxes and beer cartons – aren’t as valuable.
“People have demanded recycling, but they want it to be easy,” Wilk said. “If it’s not easy, people won’t recycle.”
And those in the recycling business know if you keep changing the rules, the people get frustrated and quit. Hence the blue and yellow boxes, filled with an olio of recycled glass, metal, plastic, paper and cardboard.
In some cases, Wilk said, there’s too much of the stuff. California and Washington ship the majority of their recyclables to China where there is a shortage of raw materials to make any goods. Oregon, she said, tries to keep things local and ships a much smaller percent overseas.
But when recycling participation is high and the plants and mills are running full speed, the prices go down. And there’s the cost of trucking all this stuff from one end of the state to the other – and then sometimes 5,000 miles over the Pacific Ocean.
Is it worth it?
“That’s the question being asked,” Wilk said. “It can be very time- and labor-intensive. But there’s responsible recycling and irresponsible recycling. Not everything can be, or should be, recycled. Some people think it should be done at all costs. I’m not even sure the recycling community thinks that.”
But the environmental cost of keeping contaminants out of the landfills and waterways still outweighs the financial cost in the minds of most Americans.
“Plastic is a marvelous material,” Wilk said. “It’s strong, it’s durable. But because it’s strong and durable, it lasts forever. Plastic things don’t really break down in a landfill.”
Some countries are even going back to their landfills, mining them for recyclables.
Wilk doesn’t think recycling will become a victim of its own success, however. The health of the environment – from byways to the planet – is just too important, she said.
“I don’t think recycling will ever die out,” Wilk said. “But some people think it’s a cure-all to save the planet. Recycling isn’t the one thing that will save the planet. It’s part of it.
“And it’s pretty simple, recycling,” Wilk said. “Just don’t litter.”