Recycling remains a challenge in Baker County, but a proposed test project could turn some types of trash into compost rather than burying it in the landfill.

David Henry, president of Baker Sanitary Service, said the recycling situation has been relatively stable for the past year or so.

But that comparative tranquility followed a period of upheaval during which Baker Sanitary, which owns both a recycling center in Baker City and the county’s major landfill about five miles southeast of town, stopped accepting certain types of plastic containers (September 2017) and mixed paper (December 2018) at the recycling center at 12th and Campbell streets.

In both cases the issue was China’s decision to stop importing those materials from the U.S.

The lack of domestic buyers for those recyclables forced Baker Sanitary, and many other garbage collectors across the state and nation, to start burying the materials in landfills instead.

That hasn’t had a major effect on Baker Sanitary’s landfill, Henry said, since plastics and mixed paper constitute relatively small volumes.

Although the tonnage of trash disposed of at the company’s landfill increased by 11.6% in 2017 — from 12.43 tons in 2016 to 14.10 tons — Henry said the increase was due more to a busy construction market, which produces considerable amounts of garbage.

The reduction in recycling of plastics didn’t have a large effect since it started toward the end of 2017.

“We haven’t noticed a substantial effect at the landfill” due to the inability to accept the plastics and paper products at the recycling center, Henry said.

(Although Baker Sanitary stopped accepting mixed paper in December 2018, the company, under an agreement with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) had been taking the paper to the landfill for several months prior.)

The DEQ, which compiles waste disposal and recycling statistics, hasn’t released a report for 2018.

Although Baker County residents sent more garbage to the landfill in 2017 than the year before, they also recycled more material — 3.55 tons compared with 3.11 tons in 2016, according to DEQ.

Baker County’s recycling recovery rate of 20.2% falls short of the 25% goal set by the Oregon Legislature for 2025.

Henry said he’d like to boost the county’s recycling rate by giving residents and businesses an opportunity to turn organic waste — food scraps and yard debris, for instance — into compost.

The advantage with organic waste is that it can be processed locally, Henry said.

That’s not the case with plastics, paper and other commonly recycled materials, which explains why China’s decision to curtail imports from the U.S. had such a widespread effect.

Henry said that although Baker Sanitary is still working on the project, the basic idea is to start testing the concept, possibly next spring, by working with larger producers of organic waste, such as grocery stores, restaurants and potentially Powder River Correctional Facility, to collect the material, truck it to the landfill and there turn it into compost.

The compost could be sold commercially, Henry said.

If the pilot project shows the process is feasible, it could be offered to Baker Sanitary’s residential customers at a cost that’s “affordable,” he said.

The Baker City Council in May of this year approved the first general rate increase for Baker Sanitary in 12 years. The monthly residential rate for weekly pickup of a standard rollcart rose from $16 to $19 on July 1.

Customers who chose that option likely would have a separate bin to collect organic waste, Henry said.

Such a program would have multiple benefits, he said — it would reduce the amount of waste going into the landfill, prolonging its lifespan, increase the county’s recycling rate and generate a saleable product.

The concept is appealing to Barbara O’Neal of Baker City, a member of the group Baker City Trash Talk, which promotes recycling as well as ways residents can reduce the amount of trash they generate, such as buying products that don’t have excessive packaging.

“It’s exciting,” O’Neal said of Baker Sanitary looking into recycling more organic materials, also known as “green waste.”

“Green waste is a big contributor to the landfill,” O’Neal said.

In a letter that Baker City Trash Talk wrote to the City Council in May, supporting Baker Sanitary’s rate hike request, the group urged the company to pursue a “composting/green waste program for residents and businesses.”

The letter cited a study from Waste-Pro, the garbage collector in La Grande, which found that about 3,400 tons of yard waste, and 1,200 tons of food waste, is hauled from that city to Baker Sanitary’s landfill.

(The company has taken trash from Union County since 2006.)

“By diverting these materials, we can extend the lifespan of our landfill and delay the need for expensive expansion,” Trash Talk wrote in its letter to the City Council.

Although China has also reduced its imports of recyclable corrugated cardboard in the past few years, Henry said he doesn’t expect the Baker Sanitary to stop accepting any other items at its recycling center.

These include, besides cardboard, plastic milk jugs, newspapers, magazines and catalogs, aluminum, tin and steel cans, and glass bottles and jars. Baker Sanitary also accepts HDPE No. 2 plastic colored bottles Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the recycling center’s gated area (other bins are available at all times).

Prices for cardboard have dropped, but it’s still a viable product for recycling, Henry said.

“It’s still something we are able to ship and not lose money on,” he said. “Everything we’re collecting now seems stable enough that I think we’ll be continuing to collect those for the foreseeable future.”

Henry said he has read reports recently about efforts to expand plastic recycling in the U.S. to offset the loss of the Chinese market, although he doesn’t expect enough progress over the next two years or so to make it possible for Baker Sanitary to again accept the plastic containers that were dropped in 2017.

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