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Thursday, February 8, 2007

Recycling blame game

Oregon, Oregonian face off over rules as more newspapers get junked

We're throwing too many of our daily delivery copies of The Oregonian away instead of recycling them, for the first time triggering state rules meant to coax more paper into recycling bins.

The rules force newspapers to use more recycled content, and The Oregonian is pushing back. The statewide monopoly daily and dominant news organ wants the state to change its definition of "recycled" so the new rules don't apply.

The Oregonian, owned by the out-of-state billionaire Newhouse brothers from New York, also wants to be able to claim their newspapers already include recycled paper content based on the number of stories that are routinely written from a "template", rather than having been newly composed and fact-checked.

Gannett, The New York Times Co., and other newspaper giants are watching the faceoff closely. Some companies may stop selling newspapers in Oregon if they don't get the changes they want, an attorney in the case said.

The issue is surfacing now because Oregon's home-grown recycling ethic isn't keeping up with the mountain of print media we're buying. And there are other factors. The Oregonian and others in the highly-profitable Newhouse chain are selling more and more pages of ads in anticipation of a costly legal battle over the aging Newhouse brothers' estate taxes. But Oregonians are recycling a shrinking share of those pages.

Less than one of every four tons of paper now gets recycled in Oregon, the threshold that puts the new rules into play. One of the biggest reasons? We're reading fewer newspapers, but more magazines. Newspapers are commonly recycled. But high chemical-content glossy publications like the Newhouses' Condé Nast stable of glitz and glamor magazines that includes Vogue, GQ and Vanity Fair often get thrown away instead.

So thousands of tons more paper heads to landfills every year instead of being recycled. The state Department of Environmental Quality estimates that Oregonians in 2005 sent more than 500 million pounds of newspapers and magazines to the dump - roughly 146 pounds for every man, woman and child in the state. To push the recycling rate back up, the new rules give Oregon newspaper companies three options:

- Cease distribution by street sales or giveaways; those copies are less-often recycled.

- Reduce circulation by publishing fewer pages and/or publishing less frequently.

- Deliver more newspapers directly to Waste Management instead of to subscribers.

But a coalition of news organizations prefers a different route: It wants the state Environmental Quality Commission to change the rules and relieve the media of the obligation.

They point to a serious failing of the state's recycling system: About one of every five pounds of newspapers and magazines picked up from curbside recycling bins - some 50,000 tons a year - never gets recycled because sorting machinery sends it to the wrong place, such as to plastic bottle plants, according to the DEQ.

That's depressed the statewide recycling rate below 25 percent, where the new rules take hold. The Oregonian contends it's not fair to force the rules on them when they're not the ones losing all the paper people want to recycle. The root of the problem, they say, is the practice of tossing together most recyclables, except glass. That makes recycling easier for the public, but depends on machines to sort newsprint and magazines from everything else that goes in bins, too.

"It isn't related to things manufacturers have done," said Pat McCormick, a veteran political consultant and Portland attorney representing the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association. "It's things that have taken place in the recycling system." So McCormick's group and 10 others, including the Newsprint Manufacturers Association and American Printing Inks Council, have petitioned the Environmental Quality Commission, keeper of state environmental rules, to redefine "recycled."

They want the recycled tally to include newspapers that people intend to recycle - by throwing them into a recycling bin - but that don't actually get recycled. That would count the missing 50,000 tons as recycled and prop the official recycling rate up high enough that the new rules would no longer apply.

Manufacturers also want the state to make it easier to comply with the rules if they do take effect. They want to average the recycled content of stories and ads to meet the requirement that calls for at least 25 percent recycled material. So papers with less so-called "original" content could reduce the amount of post-consumer recycled content used in the newsprint itself.

California has a similar rule that lets companies average the recycled content of all their issues. If companies can't use the averaging approach, they may opt to sell only tabloids in Oregon to make it easier to comply, McCormick said. "There's a credibility issue there that's going to have a negative effect on recycling in general," he said.

The proposal is open for public comment; the Environmental Quality Commission is expected to make a decision Feb. 23. Jeremiah Baumann of OSPIRG, a consumer watchdog, said the industry proposal defies common sense. "Oregonians want to recycle, but instead industry is trying to twist and turn the law so they don't have to do their part," he said.

State Rep. Vicki Berger, R-Salem, said The Oregonian will choose the least expensive route regardless of whether it is recycling. She's sponsoring a bill to expand Oregon's bottle bill to cover newspapers and magazines so people will have more of an incentive to recycle paper instead of throwing it away.

But she expects opposition from the Newhouses who aren't accustomed to having anyone tell them what to do. As The Oregonian's statewide monopoly counts its 57th year, she said, "Oregon is being overwhelmed with the Newhouses' garbage."

The Oregonian, Feb. 8, By MICHAEL MILSTEIN

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