Last month, I walked through the Far West Fibers recycling facility in northeast Portland with company president Keith Ristau.
The warehouse receives truckloads of material from curbside recycling bins across the city and funnels it through a series of conveyor belts and screening devices to separate paper from plastic and metal.
Quite a bit of the stuff in those piles isn’t supposed to be there. Some of it just isn’t recyclable: Garden hoses, paper coffee cups, plastic flowers, wigs, clothing, carpeting, blinds, and even diapers, as I previously reported.
Other items aren’t supposed to go in the curbside bins because they’re too hard to sort: Plastic straws and lids are too small to be removed individually by workers manning conveyor belts. Plastic bags get wound around the machinery, causing workers to spend break time cutting bags off the equipment.
Far West Fibers handles three-quarters of the curbside recycling for the city of Portland, and at least 2.5 percent of that ends up going to a landfill because it’s either not recyclable or it’s too hard to separate from the piles of mixed plastic, paper and metal.
Part of the problem, Ristau said, is that the recycling symbol shows up on things that can’t really be recycled or can’t be sorted at the sorting facility: Disposable coffee cup lids, giant pet food bags and all kinds of plastic.
“There are no regulations on whether you can put chasing arrows on your product,” he said. “Most people do it right, but there are no regulations. A lot of people, as long as they see the chasing arrows, think it’s recyclable. And you can throw it in your curbside bin, but if it’s not part of the program, we can’t possibly sort through that many things.”
The mounds of unsorted curbside recycling are dumped in piles alongside a series of conveyor belts. Workers stand alongside the belts and look for garbage to pull out of the mix as it moves past them. One set of screens siphons off the biggest pieces of cardboard while all the rest of the material falls down to another conveyor belt below.
Magnets sort out metal pieces and another group of workers remove plastic, aluminum cans and trash from the remaining mixture. By the time the material gets to the end of the line, there should be only small paper and cardboard pieces left.
About 70 percent of all the material collected in curbside recycling bins is paper, according to Ristau. Most – but not all – paper can be recycled.
“Of course, everybody thinks this is recyclable,” Ristau said holding up a paper coffee cup. “It’s a paper cup, right? The problem with that is they have a chemical called wet strength. If you didn’t have it, you’d pour your coffee in there and your cup would disintegrate. So, they add the wet strength, and that means when it gets to the paper mill and it goes through the pulper, it doesn’t break down there, either. It’s not recyclable.”
Elsewhere at the facility, there are giant bales of crushed 5-gallon buckets, seed bags, foam and old carpet padding that can only be recycled into new carpet padding.
There are also bales of garbage containing toilet seat covers, bicycle tires, garden hoses of all colors, waxed boxes used by grocery store produce departments, pillows, woven baskets, and random trash of all shapes and sizes.
“There certainly are a lot of recyclables in there but you can’t economically get it all out,” said Ristau. “An aluminum can might get stuck inside a waxed box, but if you can’t see it you can’t get rid of it.”
Sorting plastics has gotten trickier since China changed its purchasing policies. Far West Fibers used to be able to bale all the plastics together, but now workers set the plastics aside and sort them by number on the weekends.
Now that it’s sorted by grade, Ristau said, it’s pretty easy to sell everything except number 3 plastics. But the separation process is expensive.
“It costs us money, no doubt about it,” said Ristau. “But the alternative is sending that stuff to the landfill and morally we don’t want to do that. Plus, that costs us money, too.”
The cost of sorting plastics by number is “about neck and neck” with the cost of sending it to the landfill, Ristau said. “So, if I’m going to spend it one way or another, I’d rather spend it on people working.”
Although his company does get a fair amount of trash in the city’s so-called recycling, Ristau said he believes most people are well-intentioned.
“I think it’s a pretty small percentage of people who don’t care,” Ristau said. “There are a few people out there who see the recycling bin and say there’s room in here and I just want this to go away.”
Metro’s recycling hotline offers expert advice on what can and cannot be recycled in Portland-area curbside bins.