Oregon and California senators sent a letter to the ambassador of China late last month asking for more time to establish a transition plan regarding recyclable materials that country is no longer accepting from the U.S.
Chinese officials, citing their own worries about pollution, announced the ban on an array of plastics and other materials last summer; it went into effect Jan. 1.
China’s ban has resulted in havoc among recycling processors that collect material. Some have had to divert the unacceptable material — Nos. 3 to 7 plastics — to landfills. Others are stockpiling it until the issue is resolved.
“The DEQ and processors are just trying to absorb it all,” said Candie Wilk, recycling coordinator at Curry Transfer and Recycling. “It’s not just a matter of education; whole sorting facilities are set up for this. It’s a lot of investment they’re going to have to figure out. We’re not going to move China any, so it’ll be at the local level.”
Eventually, it will likely involve a paradigm shift in how items are packaged, retrofitting recycling plants to sort materials and finding new uses for the materials China is no longer taking from the United States.
China announced last fall it will no longer accept plastics bearing the numbers 3 to 7. Nor would it accept loads of material that usually are filled with trash.
The only difference in Curry County is that plastics bearing the numbers 3 to 7 will no longer be accepted and the contamination rate needs to be reduced, Wilk said.
“It’s been so easy to send material to China; we’re always sending material over there that’s not a lot of high-quality,” she said. “It’s easy to put the whole co-mingled bale on a ship and send it over.”
She said Curry County and Oregon have done a good job of not sending contaminants. Oregon has a contamination rate of 10 to 15 percent, but Curry County’s is 1.5 percent, she said. But even to reduce the rate from 1.5 percent to the 0.5 percent China is demanding is a big jump, she said.
Diverting the now-unacceptable plastics to the landfill should not have a huge effect on trash volume, Wilk said, because Curry County only started accepting Nos. 3 to 7 plastics in 2011. Years later, it has resulted in a 1 percent diversion rate from the landfill.
According to Kristan Mitchell, executive director of the Oregon Refuse and Recycling Association, the way the Chinese and U.S. interpret “contaminated materials,” can also be wildly different and inconsistent, she learned at a recent Department of Environmental Quality meeting.
“It can result in ‘claims’ for deliveries that occurred two or three months previous,” Mitchell said. “The claims end up charged back against the shipper, and can be two to three times the value of the load.”
Also, some contamination claims are based on breaking open one bale of recyclables and finding contamination greater than 0.5 percent, resulting in rejection of the entire load.
“If they find a milk carton, aseptic container or other listed items, the load might be rejected even if the contamination is less than 0.5 percent,” Mitchell said. “To make matters worse, the importer might decide to no longer work with the shipper because the contamination is a ‘mark’ against the importer; too many marks and the importer loses the permit and could even be prosecuted, depending on what was found in the bale.”
The changes have already affected recyclers and collection companies in Oregon.
In Junction City, no recyclables are accepted at the curb. Salem is discussing its mix of recyclables permitted, and other municipalities are looking at the impacts the ban might have on rates.
What residents can do in the interim
•Buy durable, long-lasting products.
•Purchase items in refillable containers and buy in bulk.
•Use reusable cloth shopping bags
•Avoid disposable or single-use products such as bottled water, disposable foam and paper cups and plates, plastic utensils, batteries, razors, pens and lighters.
•Conserve paper by making double-sided copies, using email, and reducing printouts
•Use durable coffee mugs and refillable bottles
•Use cloth napkins or towels
•Donate clothes, toys, furniture, and other items to thrift stores or host a garage sale.
•Use empty jars for leftovers
•Use the other side of that piece of paper
•Reuse cardboard boxes
•Fix, rather than replace appliances: Chetco Appliance refurbishes and resells some; Appliance Ace rebuilds units.
•Reuse plastic grocery bags
•Ace Hardware recycles old paint.
•Transfer Site Locations:
Brookings Recycling Center, 17498 Carpenterville Road, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday; Wridge Creek Transfer site, 9 miles north of Brookings, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; Agness Transfer Site, 28 miles up South Bank Rogue River Road, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays; Nesika Beach Transfer Site, 6 miles north of Gold Beach at the flashing yellow signal, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday.
Education at the curb
At ORRA’s Governmental Affairs Committee meeting, members said they need to educate customers about clean and contaminated materials, in hopes of cleaning up the recycling stream.
“It appears the (Portland) metro-area region is accepting everything, including aseptic packaging and all the (unacceptable) plastics such as tubs, nursery containers and buckets,” Mitchell said. “The question is, ‘Why go to the expense and effort when it doesn’t result in better pricing — or even a lower cost — and it’s too small a number in comparison to the metro area to make a significant difference in quality?”
In the short-term, Wilk said, the processors are putting pressure on local collectors to reduce contamination.
An additional challenge for CTR, ironically, is the recycling roll carts the company just debuted in Brookings. Prior to their arrival, CTR employees pre-sorted items in bins at the curb; but the tall carts preclude a good inspection.
They now will conduct cursory looks, warn first-time violators and possibly, for repeat offenders, remove the roll cart altogether.
Mitchell suggested the metro-area local governments meet with processors and determine what is marketable, and have the local governments revise programs and limit materials to match markets.
“This would level the playing field and give the local governments and collectors an opportunity to educate customers on something they can do now to help clean up materials and sustain the collection programs,” she said.
“We’re committed to responsible recycling,” Wilk said. “We can’t be sending our recycling up to Portland and sending trash with it. We always want to make sure material with a good market gets recycled. If China’s not taking our garbage anymore, everyone’s going to be in the same boat.”
Reach Jane Stebbins at firstname.lastname@example.org .