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Last year, the Chinese government sent a message to recyclers in the United States and Europe: Your paper and plastic recyclables don’t work for us anymore.
Unfortunately for everyday recyclers, the solution isn’t as easy as a cleaner yogurt tub, or a better job sorting at home. And that means for the first time in more than 30 years, some items picked up from Portland-area recycling bins will be going to a landfill.
There are no quick fixes.
“Since Oregon started recycling programs in the 1980s, the system has had to evolve and adapt,” says Metro resource conservation and recycling manager Matt Korot. Metro manages the garbage and recycling system for greater Portland.
Korot says that for now the rules about what you put in your cart won’t change.
Greater Portland will keep recycling, Metro’s Matt Korot says. “It’s great for the environment and the economy.”
And remember, things like plastic bags and those hinged plastic to-go containers called “clamshells” are among the many things that can’t be put into recycling. Contaminated recycling is harder to sell than ever.
Before recycling, reduce and reuse. That can be difficult – plastic is everywhere. Try using your produce bags twice or use cloth bags instead, and look for other ways to reduce the amount of plastic you use.
When you have questions about what goes in your recycling bin, Ask Metro. Talk to a friendly expert at 503-234-3000, email an expert, or find information online.
“Local processors have been remarkably successful finding other markets for the stuff that China is no longer taking, “says Korot. But some materials, he says, particularly the mixed paper, have been backing up at the facilities, both because they are slowing down their processes to better sort the materials and because they have fewer market options. And without a market, Korot says, it can’t be recycled. The same is true for some plastic items.
Korot says that finding other options – both short and long-term – for greater Portland recycling remains a top priority and that sending recycling to a landfill will remain a last resort. While disposal of items collected as recycling is generally prohibited by law, governments are temporarily allowing it for certain materials given the extraordinary market conditions Oregon faces right now.
Government and industry navigate uncharted waters
Since China’s plans for new restrictions became clear last summer, Metro officials have been talking with other governments and the recycling industry to understand possible repercussions and to figure out a path forward that ensures longstanding recycling programs can still be effective.
Recycling rules come from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, which manages recycling at the state level, Metro manages the system across the Portland region, and city and county governments manage local recycling programs. The for-profit recycling and waste industry is charged with much of the business side of things – haulers collect recycling, and processors sort and ultimately sell materials to be recycled.
“We all want a system that works for everyone,” Korot says. “That includes the people who are putting stuff in their carts, and the businesses that sort those recyclables so they can be sold and used to make new products.”
When the new restrictions were introduced, Korot says it was not immediately clear whether China would follow through with the requirements, which went into effect Jan. 1. In 2013, the Chinese government narrowed its acceptance of recycling, impeding business as usual over the course of several months. But eventually markets reset, and since then China has provided key markets for recyclables from Oregon and other western states.
This time, Korot says, things are different. “We’re in uncharted waters,” he says. “The Chinese market is either going away or will be severely constrained. This is a challenge for us, but it provides an opportunity to improve our recycling system overall.” However, he adds, understanding where there are now gaps in the system, and how to best fill them, will take some time.
Cost, sorting technologies factor into decisions
For years, China has been a primary market for recycling from across the U.S. and Europe. A decline in American manufacturing decreased demand here for the recyclable material that eventually becomes products and packaging. Chinese manufacturing ramped up, and ships unloading goods in West Coast ports would return to China carrying recyclable material from U.S. consumers to be sorted and sold across the ocean – an option that’s been cheaper than shipping to domestic recyclers east of the Rockies. In many cases, Chinese manufacturers have also been willing to pay more for recyclables than American companies.
Meanwhile, many domestic recyclers have disappeared. Paper mills, for example, have shut down one by one, including two large mills in Oregon that closed in just the last few years. Those mills even imported recyclable paper to make newspaper print. When they closed, Chinese mills helped fill the gap. But now the Chinese government plans to close a number of its old paper mills due to rising concerns about pollution.
Still, the Chinese government says the main reason for its new requirements is “contamination,” which is short for all the stuff in the recycling that shouldn’t be there. Plastic bags, clothing and other trash all lower the quality, and value, of recyclable material.
Historically, the solution was for Chinese recyclers to sort through American recycling, picking out what didn’t belong in it. But new Chinese standards of 0.5 percent contamination and outright prohibitions on some items mean that just a handful of unacceptable materials in a shipping container of recyclables can cause the whole load to be rejected.
Korot says these standards are just about impossible to meet. In greater Portland, where consumers have been trained for years on recycling rules, the contamination rate for recycling coming from single-family homes is 9 percent. “That’s some of the cleanest recycling in the U.S.,” says Korot.
China is also ruling out some items that are currently collected from households and businesses in greater Portland – things like milk cartons. That’s causing changes in recycling programs in some other parts of the state, and at some recycling facilities in greater Portland. But Korot says he doesn’t expect local recycling rules for homes and businesses here to change soon. He says changes to recycling programs will do little to reduce the contamination rate in the short term, and that if changes do become necessary, making them all at once is more effective and convenient for people who recycle.
All this said, Korot says “there are reasons for optimism.” In addition to new international markets, he says, more of our area’s recyclables could eventually go to manufacturers in Oregon and elsewhere in the U.S. “But that may require changes in what we recycle, how we sort it at our homes and businesses, and the equipment the private processors use to sort recyclables.”
Innovation and long-term plan could bolster recycling, reduce waste
As governments and industry leaders continue discussions about adapting and evolving the recycling system, Metro is also in the midst of developing the 2030 Regional Waste Plan. The plan will guide how the garbage and recycling system is managed for the next decade-plus. It could include ways to ensure things like packaging are recyclable and ways to minimize the environmental impact of the products we buy before we throw them away. Metro will be asking the public for input on the plan in the spring.
Metro is also developing a new grant program for qualifying businesses and nonprofits in the garbage and recycling industry. These grants could be used to cultivate local recycling markets or provide other services that ensure a stronger recycling system in the years to come.