So we can send less recycling to China now. Why have we been sending recycling there?
Over the years, China has become a manufacturing giant, producing many of the products that Oregonians and Americans buy. As Chinese manufacturing has grown, so have the Chinese markets for the recycled materials used to make products. And empty ships headed back to China after unloading goods along the West Coast have provided cheap transport of recyclable materials from Western states.
This hasn’t always been the case. For example, Oregon used to recycle most of its paper locally – and even import it – to make newsprint in local paper mills. But as mills across the U.S. closed over the last couple of decades, China’s manufacturers started to buy our recyclable paper. China’s restrictions apply to plastics and mixed paper.
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Why has China implemented higher standards for recycling?
China’s standards are based on two primary reasons:
- China wanted to close a number of old, polluting paper mills.
- China is no longer willing to sort recycling with “contamination,” that is, the extra stuff that ends up in the recycling – at home and at work – that shouldn’t be there. This includes things like plastic bags, pieces of clothing, and trash. These contaminants lower the quality of the recyclable material. For years, 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.
Why aren’t there more options to recycle this stuff locally or at least domestically?
There are two primary reasons for this that have developed over the past couple of decades:
- The U.S. manufactures fewer products than it used to, so there has been much lower demand domestically for the recyclables that serve as the raw materials for products and packaging.
- Many Chinese manufacturers have been willing and able to pay more for the recyclables than American manufacturers, so the companies that receive the recyclables after they are collected have sent them to China.
I’ve heard that recycling is getting sent to landfills. Is this true?
Almost all of the items that are accepted in home recycling in the greater Portland area are still getting recycled. The exceptions, according to information provided by recycling companies to Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, are:
- Aseptic containers (such as those boxes that hold juice, broth or soy milk) delivered to Pioneer Recycling. This primarily affects customers in Clackamas County and some parts of Multnomah County.
- Earlier this year, a relatively small amount of mixed paper from Portland and Clackamas County homes was disposed by Waste Connections’ facility in Vancouver.
If market conditions get worse, more items may have to be disposed. If that happens, it would only be as a last resort, for the fewest items possible, and for the shortest amount of time possible. Oregon Department of Environmental Quality keeps a list (called "Disposal Concurrences") of all recyclers that have requested to dispose of materials.
What is Metro doing to address changes in recycling markets?
Metro is working with a range of governments and businesses that play a role in the recycling system – this includes cities and counties, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, processors of recyclables, and industry experts. Together, this group will determine what may be needed to adjust to the new market conditions while keeping our great recycling programs strong and resilient.
In addition, over the next three years, Metro will be awarding Investment and Innovation Grants to 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.
What’s the long-term plan if China is no longer available as a market for recycling?
So far, almost all of the recyclables from the greater Portland area have found a place to go, but that may change as all of the states and countries that have been cut off from China chase the same markets. Moving forward, we may be looking at changes in three different areas:
- What recyclables we collect and how we collect them to produce the best, most saleable materials: For example, instead of creating loads of mixed plastic and loads of mixed paper, we could do more separation into the different types of plastics and paper. There are more markets in the U.S., Canada and overseas for these sorted recyclables than for the mixes. We may also have to stop recycling some materials if there are no markets.
- How we clean and sort the recyclables we collect so that more of them can be used by manufacturers in Oregon, the Pacific Northwest and the U.S.: Sorting technologies have changed since the first mass recycling started decades ago. Investing in updates to sorting infrastructure in our area could help us produce more marketable recyclables.
- What role manufacturers play in the collection and processing of their products and packaging: We have models out there, such as Oregon’s Bottle Bill, Oregon E-Cycles, and PaintCare, where manufacturers have to take responsibility for the recycling of their discarded products and packages.
How does contamination happen?
The stuff you put in your recycling containers at home and at work 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.
Recycling has weathered previous restrictions from the Chinese government, but the rules that went into effect in January are more stringent, and will likely have long-term consequences on how we recycle in Oregon.
So, what can I do?
Recycling is great for the environment and the economy. Every ton of recycled material means fewer resources – from trees to energy – are used to make new products. And unlike garbage, recycling is processed, sorted and sold, creating jobs across the system.
Residents and businesses should continue to demonstrate their strong commitment to recycling. Rules for what goes in recycling carts in greater Portland, which includes Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties, are not changing in the short term.
People can help by keeping items out of recycling bins that don’t belong there – things like plastic bags, most plastic to-go containers, and anything else that’s not on the list of acceptable items. When these items end up in recycling, it's called "contamination." And contamination makes recyclables harder to process and harder to sell.