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U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer hosted a roundtable discussion at Metro on Friday to hear and learn from local and regional officials as well as recycling industry experts about the impact changes to China's recycling market has had on Oregon.
China, the world's largest market for recycled waste, started restricting its imports of recycled materials such as plastics and unsorted paper on Jan. 1. Officials said the U.S. and Europe were sending too much recyclable waste that was contaminated with unusable materials.
Much of the discussion on Friday focused on the need for domestic markets.
"I believe we need to be prepared to develop new markets here, new processes here, as well as explore other markets for exports as necessary," Metro Councilor Bob Stacey said. "But there's no reason why this national economy can't do a better job of responding to this kind of crisis because these are valuable materials when properly separated, properly processed and made available for production."
But the lack of domestic solutions wasn't always an issue. Jeff Murray, of EFI Recycling, spoke about the evolution of the local markets, saying that years ago whenever a new material was added to collection programs, they made sure there was a local or regional market — if not at least a domestic market for the material. But during the 1990s, China began doing more with one machine than what two local paper mills could do.
"Our mills started falling behind, we moved to co-mingling, our quality started going down, but China was willing to pay more for less quality and that began the downslide of some of our domestic options," he said.
But with paper still making up around 70 percent of what's collected from homes and businesses, Murray said he believes there's still a potential for domestic mills in the Pacific Northwest — if only they became interested again.
He said the other big issue is cleaning up the recycling overall, a concern echoed by others in attendance. Some said the region needs to invest in facilities and technology that can better sort materials.
"China allowed us to be a bottom feeder and build a commodity system that was contaminated," said Matt Stern, Waste Management's Pacific-Northwest-British Columbia area recycling director. "Every piece of recycling equipment in this country — and I'm only exaggerating slightly — is incapable of making the industry standard that has been in place for decades. The future has to take into account the need to make quality material. If you make quality material and you're consistent at it, you have a better chance of luring plastic processors and manufacturers."
He also said the industry needs to be prepared as flexible plastic packaging — things like re-sealable pouches and bags for food, snacks and laundry detergent pods — becomes the future, which, despite its sustainability benefits, remains a challenge to recycle.
"We all have to have one eye on that change and, whatever we do, should keep that in mind," Stern said.
Blumenauer, D-Portland, also asked the group for advice on next steps the federal government could take.
Some mentioned that subsidies or incentives could help build new markets, while others mentioned that looking at government procurement requirements would help support a domestic demand for materials.
Matt Korot, Metro's recycling program manager, said more could be done with "Extended Producer Responsibility" laws, which hold manufacturers responsible for the afterlife of their products. He said having federal laws would be more effective than the current state-by-state approach, where some states lead and others lag behind.
Ali Briggs-Ungerer, chair of the Association of Oregon Recyclers, suggested that perhaps the federal government could address packaging claims of recyclability. She said too often, manufacturers put misleading information about the recyclability of their products, which only creates confusion for consumers who are trying to make the right decisions.