A year-end report from the state Department of Environmental Quality shows the state’s recycling rate in 2017 was 42.8 percent — not bad, but a far cry from the goal of reaching 52 percent by 2020, recycling officials said this month.
“We’re not going to make it,” said DEQ waste reduction specialist Peter Spendelow. “When we set that goal, which was just a few years ago, we were not anticipating that we would lose the huge wood markets. And we also weren’t anticipating the China crisis.”
The China crisis
The “China crisis” began Jan. 1, 2018, when Chinese officials announced the country would not longer accept plastics bearing the numbers 3 to 7. Nor would it accept loads of material that are often intermixed with trash and non-recyclable items.
That prompted Curry Transfer and Recycling (CTR) to stop accepting those plastics — it had only just begun accepting them anyway, so that learning curve wouldn’t be too huge for consumers, CTR recycling coordinator Candie Wilke said last year. It also ramped up its education efforts about acceptable recyclables.
The ban resulted in havoc among recycling processors collecting material. Some have had to divert the Nos. 3 to 7 plastics to landfills. Others started stockpiling it until the issue is resolved. Others announced they would not longer accept certain materials they had in the past, to avoid accumulating piles that have nowhere to go.
It was further exacerbated when China announced it would not take bales of recyclables with contamination rate of 0.5 percent — and they were still rejecting bales with even less contamination, officials said.
Oregon has a contamination rate of 10 to 15 percent, but Curry County’s is 1.5 percent, according to Candie Wilk, recycling coordinator at Curry Transfer and Recycling. To reach the 0.5 percent rate China is demanding is a big request.
Because of that, recyclers on the West Coast started to scale back operations.
“Almost all the jurisdictions, outside the Portland metro area, have dropped plastic pails and tubs and flower pots,” Spendelow said.
“We have a 25 percent recycling goal … for all plastics by 2020. We’re moving the wrong direction when jurisdictions stop allowing plastic pails and tubs to go in their curbside bins.”
“One thing I’ve learned in this business is that there are a lot of ripples,” Wilk said. “I think it has more to do with the domestic markets capability of absorbing the material. It will take a few years before the infrastructure is there.”
According to Pioneer Recycling, the Portland recycling facility to which CTR sends it material, a unique situation is that the few remaining export permits to China have expired, and no new ones have been reissued.
“This will reduce demand for pre-consumer old corrugated containers (OCC) — magazines and newspapers — and push this material into the West Coast domestic market, which should impact pricing for the OCC we produce,” the newsletter reads. “It is unclear when the new permits, if any, will be issued.”
“It’s still a problem,” Wilke said, “but it’s opening up markets for cardboard. When you have a problem on one end, it usually helps on another end.”
Another challenge is that Vietnam has also shut down its imports of mixed paper, or MIX, defined as all recyclable paper except corrugated cardboard.
“When China banned mixed paper at the beginning of 2018, Vietnam stepped in to accept many of the shipments that were previously going to China,” the newsletter reads. “This created significant congestion at their ports. It is unclear at this time if Vietnam’s action is just related to this congestion at their ports or their sense that the quality of MIX paper just presents to many problems for them.”
Pioneer officials said they are worried they may be moved to a situation where won’t be enough demand for mixed paper at any price.
“This was our concern a year ago with the change in China,” the newsletter says, “and now we can’t help but think it’s “déjà vu all over again.”
Pioneer has secured enough mixed-paper orders to meet their needs through early January.
It also noted that entrepreneurs and established paper companies in Oregon and Washington are responding to the packaging paper supply gap the China created.
“These companies understand that the demand for packaging papers remains unabated and must be met,” the newsletter reads. “They are pledging their own investment capital to do just that. For this reason, we are very optimistic about the mid to long-term future of recycled paper pricing.”
Oregonians generated 5.43 million tons of waste, up 3 percent from 2016. They disposed of 3.10 million tons of that into landfills — up 1.8 percent — and recycled the remaining 2.3 million tons
Statewide, glass and paper recycling was up, but plastic, electronic and organic waste recycling declined between 2016 and 2017.
Doubling the deposit on most beverages, from a nickel to a dime, helped, Spendelow admitted.
Wilk said she believes recycling volume in Curry County will be about the same as last year — which shows that, even though plastics labeled 3-7 aren’t being accepted, people are recycling other products.
She attributes that, in part, to the new roll-cart program CTR introduced, which involved trading customers’ recycle bins to carts similar to the trash cans it provides.
“I think it makes it easier (for customers),” Wilk said. “It’s a big cart, so people are more likely to divert material.”
CTR hopes to expand the roll-cart program to unincorporated areas of Curry County in 2019.
And a mobile app called ReCollect, which will be available sometime in the first quarter of the new year, will enable people to verify if certain items are recyclable before mistakenly — or properly — putting them in their recycling carts.
“I think it’s going to be a good year,” Wilk said. “We had a lot of feedback at the beginning (the roll-cart introduction), but it all smoothed out after a first couple months. It’s rolling out really nicely.”