China's new recycling rules put strain on green industry

New rules restrict types of plastic nation accepts
Strawberries are packaged in clear plastic containers at Ashland Food Co-op. The containers and other types of plastic may not be recyclable in the future because of a crackdown on dirty shipments in China. Mail Tribune Jamie LuschJamie Lusch

Chinese restrictions on imports of contaminated recycled material have made it more difficult to recycle everything from clear plastic strawberry containers to hospital gowns in the Rogue Valley.

Dubbed the Green Fence, the restrictions are causing markets for many recyclables to dry up as China rejects shipments.

The U.S. lacks adequate facilities at home to process recyclables, industry experts said. Instead, America exports much of that material to China, where it is sorted and processed, then reused to make new products in China's booming manufacturing sector.

Dirty recyclables and garbage mixed into the shipments were separated out and sent to Chinese landfills before the Green Fence crackdown.

"They've decided not to be the dump of the world anymore. I commend them for that," said Tammie Kirk, recycling director at Southern Oregon Aspire in Grants Pass.

The nonprofit organization, which provides job opportunities to developmentally disabled people, runs a recycled-material sorting facility. It accepts material from valley garbage companies and other sources but had to cut back on what it can take when the Green Fence went up this year.

"We are seeing significant changes," Kirk said.

The Southern Oregon Aspire Recycling Center can no longer take a range of materials, including clear plastic clamshell containers used for packaging, blue propylene hospital gowns, and colored plastic bags, she said.

"Even butter tubs and yogurt containers are becoming questionable," Kirk said.

At the Ashland Food Co-op, Sustainability Coordinator Stuart Green said employees are now having to throw clear plastic clamshell containers in the trash rather than saving them for pickup by Southern Oregon Aspire.

The containers are used to package products such as strawberries, baked goods and speciality foods, he said.

They protect products inside while also allowing customers to see what they are buying, Green said.

Retailers and companies selling products are reluctant to use paper containers because customers can't see the product, he said.

Although the Ashland Food Co-op does plan to check into alternate packaging, Green said it's difficult for the store by itself to have an impact on the larger system. Consumers need to demand responsible packaging.

"It's very difficult to turn down a product simply because of the packaging if people keep buying it. It has to come from the consumer perspective," he said. "Culturally, we're not accustomed to making decisions based on environmental reasons alone."

Green said while many local farmers choose responsible packaging, food that is shipped in from California's Central Valley often is packaged in plastic.

While the Chinese restrictions on imports of recycled material are having a negative impact on local recycling in the short term, there may be long-term positive impacts, said Risa Buck of Recology Ashland Sanitary Service.

The company collects garbage and recyclables in the Ashland area.

For years, China had been telling other countries to stop sending dirty plastics. But the rest of the world ignored those pleas until the Green Fence restrictions were enforced, she said.

"It's forcing the rest of the world to clean up its act, so to speak," Buck said.

America needs to build up its own ability to sort and process recyclables to turn them into raw material for manufacturing, she said.

Consumers also need to avoid plastic in the first place rather than expecting they can just recycle the material, she said.

"We're not going to solve problems by recycling more and more and more. Recycling is a backdoor solution," Buck said. "If our goal is truly creating a more just community, country and world, we need to look at the generation of all this plastic at the beginning rather than at the end."

Meanwhile, avid local recyclers who have been storing up plastic lids, nursery plant containers, plastic bags and other materials for the Jackson County Plastic Round-up this fall may be out of luck.

Organizers still are hoping to hold the event in October or November but cannot make a firm commitment yet that it will take place because of the Green Fence restrictions, according to the Jackson County Recycling Partnership.

"If they collect all that material, they have to have a place to send it," Buck said.

Last spring, more than 660 people brought enough material to fill almost four semitrailers with 30,605 pounds of plastic, the Jackson County Recycling Partnership said.

For updates on whether the fall round-up will take place, see the partnership's website at jcrecycle.org.

Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com.


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