Organizers from Westside Master Recyclers hope to make PlanetCon an annual activity.

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Large bags of grocery bags and other plastic wait to be turned in for recycling during the PlanetCon event at Lincoln Street Elementary School in Hillsboro.Hundreds of people from across Washington County lugged packages of old Styrofoam or broken Christmas lights to a Hillsboro elementary school last weekend for a major recycling effort aimed at getting plastics and other recyclables out of landfills.

The inaugural PlanetCon recycling and holiday decor swap at Lincoln Street Elementary School drew more than 240 people on Saturday, Jan. 6, for what organizers hope will become a regular recycling event for Washington County.

"It was actually quite surprising (how many people came)," said PlanetCon organizer Roberta Sommer. "We didn't know how it was going to go."

Attendees off-loaded more than 1,000 pounds of Styrofoam and other forms of polystyrene during the three-hour event, Sommer said. The event also collected more than 300 pounds of non-working Christmas lights, according to event spokeswoman Cecelia Warner, who lives in Forest Grove.

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Booths from various environmental and recycling groups were on hand to answer questions at PlanetCon in Hillsboro Saturday.The event was hosted by Westside Master Recyclers, a group for graduates of Washington County's Master Recycler program. Members are interested in recycling and other sustainable practices, but Sommer said the event was the first time the group organized to hold a recycling event for the community.

"This is why we became master recyclers in the first place," Warner said. "We care about the Earth. We have these issues in the front of our brains all the time."

Although a common site in packaging, polystyrene isn't accepted in most curbside recycling programs and Hillsboro's Far West Recycling plant has stopped accepting the materials after its buyer, the Chinese government, announced in March it wouldn't be buying American polystyrene.

The polystyrene from Saturday's event was sent to Tigard company Agilyx, which converts polystyrene into oil and other compounds.

China has long been the world's leading buyer of polystyrene, often using it in its manufacturing, but after the Chinese government announced last year it would stop buying the product due to health concerns, many recycling companies were left with no place to send their collected plastics.

Hillsboro's Far West Recycling plant stopped accepting the items, as did most other recyclers in the U.S.

"That means we have no place to take or send all the plastics we create every day," Sommer said.

With no market to recycle polystyrene, Sommer said environmentally conscious Oregonians need be aware of what they are buying.

"I think what will be key in the months and years to come is stepping back and looking at our habits and keep looking at options and get more information," she said. "We need to be a more savvy consumer."

Sommer runs regular polystyrene collections in her neighborhood in Cornelius, but she wanted to expand the event to help more people, she said.

"It's important for master recyclers (to) get out into the community to help until we can get a new market established," she said. "We need to have facilities here that handle the plastics."

Sommer said she hopes to make PlanetCon an annual event each winter.

"The holidays are a time when people get a lot of polystyrene," she said. "I'd love to do this again and have it be something the community can rely on and depend on, so that their waste can be handled in the best way possible."

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Huge bags of bulky Styrofoam blocks tower above Lance Sommer outside Lincoln Street Elementary School in Hillsboro during PlanetCon. He volunteered to collect the foam and load it into a recycling dumpster at the event.

By Geoff Pursinger
Associate Editor, Hillsboro Tribune
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