Consumers in the greater Portland area are looking for new ways to recycle some plastic items as sudden changes in the recycling industry hit home.
The changes here started a few weeks ago, after Far West Recycling announced it was significantly reducing the types of plastics it accepted for recycling. Slowly, other drop-off sites have followed suit, leaving many home recyclers with piles of plastic that they may end up putting in the garbage can.
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The problem is on the market end, according to Far West and Metro officials. Someone has to buy recycled materials from the collection center for the recycling process to work. But most of those materials have been going to China, which says it will ban imports of some recyclable plastic and paper by 2018.
The impacts of this are playing out locally, nationally and around the globe.
In Oregon, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, which regulates the garbage and recycling system at the state level, is working with local governments and the recycling industry, including processing facilities and even potential buyers of the materials, to reconfigure the system in a way that allows the continued recycling of these items.
But the department is already warning that these recent disruptions could mean an unprecedented move: to approve that some materials collected as recycling be sent to a landfill – including what gets picked up in your home bin. State law requires that items collected as recycling get recycled or reused. The Department of Environmental Quality would have to grant an exception for those recyclables to be thrown away as trash.
“If this were to happen, it would be a last resort, for the shortest term, and for as little recyclable material as possible” says Matt Korot, Metro’s recycling and resource conservation manager. Metro manages the garbage and recycling system in greater Portland, and is working closely with state and local governments to explore the options.
Why has so much of our recycling been going to China?
There are a few key factors that work together here. For starters, as China has become a manufacturing giant, producing many of the products that Oregonians and Americans buy, markets there for the recycled materials used to make products have grown relative to the U.S.
This hasn’t always been the case. For example, Oregon used to recycle most of its paper locally – and even import it – to make newspaper print in local paper mills. But as mills across the U.S. closed over the last decade that paper started going to China. China’s upcoming ban includes mixed paper.
Why doesn’t China want our recycling now?
There are a couple of reasons, including China’s plans to close a number of old, polluting paper mills. Another reason, though, is one that links directly back to our everyday recycling habits – what industry insiders call contamination. That “contamination” is stuff in the recycling that shouldn’t be there – things like plastic lids and plastic bags.
The recycling you put in your home bin is sorted at a local facility, and similar items, such as all the paper, or all the plastic, are separated and baled for transport and sale. Although the recycling is sorted, both with machinery and with human hands, items get missed. For example, plastic lids get picked up with paper. Those lids, along with a variety of plastic items, end up in home recycling bins even though they don’t belong there, often because people hope that it will still be recycled, Korot says. And these contaminants lower the quality of the recyclable material. That means that those plastic lids make the paper they’re hidden in less useful, and less valuable.
To date, Chinese facilities have been willing to buy recyclables from both the U.S. and Europe and then sort it again. But now that’s changed. China is no longer willing to accept high levels of contamination. Korot says recyclables from Oregon tend to be less contaminated than those from many other places in North America, but greater Portland is still affected.
So should I just throw my recycling in the garbage?
No. Continue to recycle. At home and at work, nothing has changed. You can still put the same plastics and paper in your recycling bin. Metro or your local government will let you know if there are changes. They’ll also let you know if local facilities end up throwing away any of those materials collected as recycling because they have nowhere to send them. Korot says that the only way to make sure we continue to recycle as much as possible is to keep putting recyclables in the recycling bin.
But, he adds, it’s more important than ever to make sure you place in the bin only what belongs there. Contamination is a cost to the system at every juncture – from the first time it’s sorted until certain items are processed into a recycled material that can be used to make something new. Given the role it’s playing in China’s ban, it’s likely it will be a factor in the search for other viable markets as well.
For other plastics – the produce bags and food containers that can’t go in your home bin – the situation is continuing to evolve, so it’s best to check Metro’s online database for recycling options. You can search for wide variety of plastics, from ‘film” to “clamshells.” If you don’t find options, you can either stockpile it a while and wait for changes, or put it in the garbage.
I can’t stand putting this stuff in the garbage. What else can I do?
Plastic is everywhere. And it can be difficult to avoid – from your morning yogurt to the cheapest apples to your cold coffee drink to that rotisserie chicken that makes a meal easy at the end of a busy day. But, says Korot, in both the short and long term, recycling can’t be the silver bullet for reducing waste. Before recycling, he says, reduce and reuse.
In addition, says Korot, Metro is developing the next Regional Waste Plan right now. The plan will guide how the system is managed for the next decade-plus and could include ways to ensure things like packaging are recyclable. “We have an opportunity to look at some innovative ways to do things differently in the future.” Metro is asking for input on such priorities for the plan right now.