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China crackdown changing Oregon recycling systems

Recyclables put out by south Bear Creek Valley residents might not end up in landfills as the firm that handles them looks at options in the face of Chinese restrictions that have disrupted the usual market process.

But the recycling would likely come at a cost.

“The ultimate decision of whether we continue to recycle at higher cost will be by the cities,” said Gary Blake, Recology Ashland general manager. He plans to go before city councils in Ashland and Talent in the first week in November to explain options. The firm has franchise agreements with the cities.

“Our intent would be not to dispose of it, but to find other solutions, even if those solutions come at higher prices,” said Blake.

China has imposed more stringent rules on what it will accept for recycling. With materials stacking up, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality is close to allowing firms to put materials intended for recycling into landfills. Oregon rules don’t allow that currently.

DEQ may issue a letter of concurrence acknowledging the problem and authorizing landfill disposal as soon as the end of this week, said Brian Fuller, western region manager for materials. The agency has been meeting with stakeholders, including local governments, handling-facility operators and collecting companies.

“It’s not just a DEQ decision. That would be up to the local jurisdictions as to how they proceed,” said Fuller. “Right now we are having a major market disruption.”

It is now costing more to recycle materials than to bury them, said Fuller. City councils and county boards will need to figure out what people are willing to spend and how to factor that in when recyclable prices go up or down.

“We are not directing anyone to throw materials away, we are just kind of opening the door,” said Fuller. “It’s a rapidly changing situation. There are a lot of unknowns.”

One option for Recology might be shipping of baled materials to a materials recycling facility in the Eureka, California, area. That’s where baled materials are sorted into categories, and nonrecyclables and contaminants are removed.

“If they were to bring some of their garbage up to the Dry Creek Landfill, we would be able to back-haul our recyclables down there,” said Blake. “It’s still more expensive, but we have control and make sure it gets recycled that way.”

Recology received a notice from Rogue Disposal Monday asking for direction from the company in dealing with its baled recyclables stored at the Rogue Materials Recovery facility in White City.

Rogue Disposal holds its own materials and those of Recology and other operators in Josephine and Klamath counties. As of Tuesday, the White City center had between 1,000 and 1,100 tons of baled materials, reported Gary Penning, government affairs and marketing director for Rogue Disposal.

With the tighter Chinese restrictions, materials recycling facilities have had to slow down their sorting lines to do a better job, or they run it though twice, said Blake.

“That’s creating a bottleneck. They have lost half their capacity,” said Blake. “We used to get paid for this stuff a year ago. Today we are paying to do it. That’s not likely to change. It’s likely to get worse unfortunately.”

“Recology is one of the few garbage companies that doesn’t utilize its own landfills,” said Blake. “We have very much built a market around recycling. This is a big part of what we are.”

Recology is in the San Françisco Bay Area and much of Northern California, but also has operations in Seattle, Portland and on the Oregon Coast.

“The company has diversified away from Chinese markets into developing other global markets,” said Blake. “It will come at higher cost, but I think we have a pathway to continue recycling.”

Rogue Disposal hasn’t made any decision on how it will treat current materials or future directions. The firm has franchise agreements with Medford, Jacksonville, Central Point, Phoenix and Jackson County.

“We’ll be looking to our franchise partners. We’ve been keeping them informed,” said Penning. “Their decision will drive what we do. A lot of it will be based on what are the costs.”

“The long-term concern is what our curbside collection mix is going to look like going forward,” said Penning. He questions whether it will still include certain plastics and what sorts of paper will be accepted.

Desirable materials for recycling include most cardboard, tin cans, high-grade office paper and high-grade plastics such as milk jugs, said Blake. Most plastics stamped 3 through 7 will no longer be accepted by China, he added. Low-grade recyclables include most cardboard food containers.

DEQ has a website with information that will be updated regularly at www.oregon.gov/deq/mm/Pages/Recycling-Markets.aspx.

— Tony Boom is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.