fb pixel

Log In

Reset Password

Recyclables may hit Chinese wall

The recycling system is moving to a “potential crisis,” with China, the biggest buyer, taking less of it, paying less for it, rejecting contaminated stuff (which is a lot of it) — and possible forcing regional waste systems to toss much of it in landfills until they can reshape their mission.

In a nutshell, say recyclers here, the age of “wishful recycling” is over. Wishful recycling is where, if you wonder where a pizza box goes, you just toss it in the mostly likely bin, the one for paper. If a jar still has peanut butter on it, you just toss it in with the glass. Lids? Well, just toss ‘em in with plastic. But no. Recyclers have to do better.

Why? Because most commingled recycling material is shipped to China and they’re not happy with us. Our lack of education and discipline about recycling is costing them money and labor.

“Drastic changes have recently occurred in global recycling markets,” say area recycling services in a news release. The changes are creating a “potential crisis” across the world, but especially on the West Coast, because China has announced that, by the end of 2017, it will ban import of unsorted paper, metal and some types of plastics.

Under a program the Chinese call “national sword,” they’re banning import of contaminants and “this in a very abrupt manner, quicker than we can react to it,” says Blake. “We don’t know the degree of impact yet or how long it will last.”

China has been receiving recycling from us that’s 20 percent contaminants and they want to tighten that to 3 percent, then 1 percent, he says.

What this means in curbside bins is that you’ll recycle newsprint, cardboard, tin cans, and simpler plastics, such as milk and water bottles. Glass will continue to be recycled in its separate bin. The market is still good for tin cans, which are recycled into re-bar and other metal things, says Garry Penning, Rogue Waste System director of government affairs and marketing.

You won’t recycle “scrap paper,” such as junk mail, cereal boxes and toilet paper tubes. You won’t recycle plastic containers for shampoo, yogurt, butter and such. These items are considered “contaminants,” which slow down processing and increase costs for China, and this creates a backup to shippers, processors and finally, local collectors, says Penning.

For stuff to be recyclable, it also can’t be contaminated with any kind of food or gunk. You may think that paper coffee cup from Starbucks is recyclable, but it isn’t. It’s scrap for the landfill.

“People have to keep all recycling clean now,” says Penning. “If there’s any question, the best thing to do is toss it in the garbage.”

Glass can continue to be recycled domestically. Recycled glass collected by Recology Ashland is sent to Glass To Glass in Portland to be made into new glass, as is glass collected by Rogue Disposal in Medford and Phoenix.

You might think cardboard is plentiful, but it’s getting more scarce, simply because America manufactures less and less stuff, so it doesn’t need as much cardboard to package it. So, cardboard is still recyclable in Oregon, but “the market is slowing down here. If you make a widget in China, you need a box there,” says Trent Carpenter, general manager of Southern Oregon Sanitation.

To meet new standards, the material recovery facility (MERF) used by local recyclers is now running commingled items through its lines twice but, says Blake, this cuts their efficiency in half.

“The worst case scenario is there’s no home for all the recycling but we have a limited amount of storage,” he says. “Ultimately, if we don’t have the capacity to process it, we landfill some and if the landfill fills up, we can’t fulfill the responsibility we have.

“The traditional MERF has been paying us $20 a ton for commingle, but,” Blake says, “the market is so bad now that, in the short run, they will charge us to accept it. … In the end, it will have to paid by the ratepayer. The real-life impact will be on rates. If we all improve, get great on recycling, we wouldn’t have this issue.”

To help change recycling behavior, area recyclers are joining in an education campaign for ratepayers, including video and social media that reflect the tightening rules.

If local recyclers aim to put more stuff in landfills, says Penning, they have to get permission from the state Department of Environmental Quality. While the new rules are “extremely disruptive,” says Penning, “what China decides is what’s relevant to us.”

The dreaded Chinese “national sword” has not come down yet. However, they say, it’s highly likely by the end of the year.

— John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

(Oct. 6: Story updated to reflect that recycled glass collected in Ashland is sent to Portland to be made into new glass, not sent to the landfill or used as aggregate.)