The recycling leg of the triangle encouraging people to Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, has been kneecapped.

A somber update regarding the status of recycling in light of China’s refusal to accept plastics was held at a Southern Oregon Climate Action Now presentation in Medford Tuesday evening. Recyclers on the West Coast have been grappling with how to address growing piles of recyclables since China discontinued accepting material Jan. 1.

In 2016, America exported 1.42 million metric tons of plastic to China. Markets there use the higher quality material to make toys, cars, appliances — most of which are then shipped back to the U.S.

“It’s not clear what will happen with plastics,” said Kathy Conway, the co-facilitator of the nonprofit organization. “It’s clear that we consume and throw away — or recycle — way more than we should, so the first step is to try to reduce. Nobody had any hope for plastics.”

The group typically addresses issues related to climate change and how to combat it, but took on the topic of recycling plastics since China announced last year that it would discontinue accepting America’s material in an attempt to clean up its own environment. Other recycling options throughout the world often involve incineration, which contributes to greenhouse gases and global warming.

In the past, recycled plastics labeled 1 and 2 — and in recent years Nos. 3-7, until their collection was discontinued again — are collected from residences and businesses, taken to sorting facilities in Portland, baled and shipped to China.

Then, China announced it won’t take most plastics in an attempt to clean up its own environment. But even those deemed acceptable — Nos. 1 and 2 — are often turned away at port for fear of contamination.

“There doesn’t seem to be a market anymore,” Conway said. “That said, it doesn’t mean that someone won’t have a brilliant idea and we will again have a place to sell our plastics.”

The group talked about creating markets where plastics could be used.

“There weren’t a lot of answers,” Conway said, “but acknowledgement that we have a problem and need to think about what we’re doing.”

What are we doing?

If people don’t reuse plastic material — much of it is, however, used in packaging impossible to reuse — and if manufacturers don’t change the way they package goods, plastics will again end up in landfills, many of which are reaching the ends of their lives nationwide, operators say.

Other options could include energy recovery — incineration — which could create energy, too.

Jeffrey Morris, an economist and environmental consultant with Sound Resource Management Group in Olympia, Washington said recycling is better. A study he conducted found that recycling saves three to five times more energy than does burning plastics for energy. And once the material is gone, it can’t be recreated for reuse; instead, virgin material — fossil fuels — must be used.

Burning plastic also releases harmful dioxins into the air and arguments ensue between energy proponents and environmentalists about how well filters capture toxic pollution.

The costs of building such facilities, combined with the likely expense of fighting lawsuits against their construction, have made many firms shy away from the idea.

Studies are under way to determine who to best reuse some products, particularly drink lids, hard plastics, bubble wrap and saran wrap. And communities are increasingly banning items such as plastic grocery bags and straws.

Too much trash

It is possible if citizens cleaned up their recycling and paid better attention to what they put in the recycling bins, China would have more confidence in accepting the material.

The most immediate solution, said Laura Leebrick of Rogue Disposal, would be to ensure trash does not get mixed in with recycled materials and those materials are free of debris: labels and food contaminants.

When material is flying by on conveyor belts at a rate of 20 pounds per second, it makes for dirty material being shipped overseas, she said.

Her firm is also working with niche markets that only take material from sources they know will provide clean recyclables — and placing “Oops!” tags on recycle bins containing unacceptable materials to educate the public.

“That’s the direction we’ve taken for now, until we see how the global market shakes out,” Leebrick said. “There’s simply too much garbage in our recycling. We made it too easy to let people put ‘wishful recycling’ into the bins.”

A long-term solution could be to bring all that manufacturing home — a campaign promise President Trump has yet to fulfill. But if goods and packaging were made in the U.S., citizens could pressure manufacturers to make better use of materials.

“It’s complicated,” Leebrick said. “If we just demanded from manufacturers not to use plastics, we wouldn’t have problem. But a lot of manufacturing comes from other countries. How do you say, ‘Hey, other country: You have to make your product from this material before you ship it here?’ Until we start manufacturing things here again, we probably need a mix of some governmental intervention requiring it.”

She said that should start with the government itself. For example, when any entity orders paper — and government at all levels goes through tons of it — it should be required to purchase paper with recycled content. That in itself will drive demand for recycling centers.

“Maybe we’ll have to deal with own junk instead of sending it out of sight, out of mind,” Conway said. “And don’t forget, there’s the reduce and the reuse. We need to do that, too.

Reducing

Reducing is done at the point of purchase, and it’s an emotional one, Leebrick said.

“Waste happens way upstream,” she said. “Recycling’s a way that people can feel OK about consumption. I think this whole recycling crisis forced us down the path a little more quickly, to look at things we consume in terms of their life cycle and their impact to the environment from cradle to grave.”

The three women agreed it will take an educational push to get people who have been dedicatedly recycling since the 1970s or earlier to make such major changes in their lifestyles. One way of doing that is increasing prices.

“Education has come to pulling out the enforcement, taking away privileges and (increasing) the cost,” said Jamie Rosenthal, with Recology of Ashland. “People have been used to recycling appearing to be free for 35 years, and that’s just not the case. When you talk about a 12 percent rate increase, people sit up and take notice.”

“We need to take a step into action,” Conway said. “Instead of complaining about China, we need to think of this as an opportunity to do better because this is where we are. This is our chance to turn this around and deal differently with things.”

Reach Jane Stebbins at jstebbins@currypilot.

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