Like any responsible environmentalist I have been throwing my trash into separate bins for decades, assuming that the city-contracted waste hauler was sending mixed garbage to a local landfill, and plastics, glass, and paper to American manufacturers who recycled the materials into new products. How surprised and confused was I when earlier this spring the news media announced that manufacturers in China were no longer willing to take most of the plastic garbage the citizens of the Rogue Valley were sending them!
As luck would have it, Jackson County has two hauling companies: one for Medford and Phoenix, and one serving Ashland and Talent. Because Recology negotiates its own set of contracts as to where recyclables are reprocessed, Ashlanders are not being asked to make the same drastic changes to their recycling patterns as the residents of Phoenix and Medford. The woman responsible for managing these contracts is Recology Waste Zero Specialist Jamie Rosenthal.
Jamie grew up in Coos Bay, where she learned early on to be responsible about waste from a father who spent weekends collecting trash left behind by beachcombers. Ironically, her father was employed by a paper mill, so Jamie grew up seeing all sides of the impassioned battle between environmentalists and Oregon’s timber industry. In the cross-fire, her father’s paper mill was shuttered, causing her family serious economic hardship. When Southern Oregon University offered Jamie a generous scholarship, she moved to Ashland in 1997.
Wanting to put her degree in communications to good purpose, Jamie researched several local companies before deciding that employee-owned Recology had a mission (“to return resources to their best and highest use”) that resonated with her own values. Working her way up from customer service to her present position, Jamie is now responsible for educating residents on how to reduce waste and recycle properly, as well as determining to which companies Recology can profitably sell the resources it has collected from its customers.
That is no simple task. Haulers pick up the contents of our curbside bins and bring them to the “transfer” station on North Valley View Road. From there, non-recyclables are sent to a landfill site in Eagle Point, while glass is trucked up to a company in Portland, where it is crushed, melted and repurposed.
As of June, certain plastic bags are being sent to Virginia-based, Trex, which will turn them into decking materials (see below). Paper and hard plastics are sold to manufacturers both in this country and abroad. Jamie explains, “the destination just depends on where the highest demand is, or where the best price can be found.” Much of the manufacturing of plastics is located in China and other Asian countries, so container ships returning to their point of origin are filled with our mixed recycling.
That said, Jamie encourages consumers to contemplate the meaning of the slogan “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” and emphasize the first two sets of actions. “It is important to remember that the ‘Three Rs’ is a hierarchy. The act of simply tossing something into your mixed recycling cart does not automatically make you a ‘good’ person. You’ve simply out-sourced your problem. If you are truly interested in having an impact, start thinking about ways you can reduce your consumption, and reuse materials whenever possible.”
Due to Jamie’s negotiations with Trex, Ashlanders now have a clear, concrete action they can take. Rather than throwing all soft plastics into the combined trash, we can separate our bags, bubble wrap, etc. into two categories of plastic: 1. clear or 2. containing some type of color (see Trex website for a full list of acceptable soft plastics: www.trex.com/recycling/recycling-partnerships/). Ashlanders can then bring these soft plastics down to the Ashland Recycling Center on Water Street at Van Ness (open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday).
Ashland resident, author and anthropologist Nina Egert has been a lay environmentalist since the early 1970s.