Oregon’s Recycling Future Faces Uncertainty

Oregon’s recycling efforts have suffered a major blow the last few months due to China’s increased standards regarding what recyclable plastics they accept. As a result, some parts of Oregon are already shutting down parts of their recycling programs. 

Why the Change?
Typically using recycled plastics as a resource for its manufacturing industry, China had been accepting plastics contaminated with other materials, like plastic bags, liquids, food, clamshells, electronics, and batteries. Now that’s changing.

In July, China announced it will ban imported mixed post-consumer paper and plastic after January 1, 2018. China will continue to accept milk jug and PET bottles, but they will be required to meet a 0.3 percent recyclable contamination standard that an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality memo called “exceedingly stringent.”

Speaking of Oregon regulations, in last week’s “As the State Turns”, our own Johnny Beaver cited some suggested rules relating to the Cleaner Air Oregon Program, saying, “The new system specifically would be looking to require businesses to report about 250 chemicals and another 600 emissions that have been linked to cancer or other bodily issues.”

Time will tell what happens with this proposed system in Oregon, but China already began its National Sword program this past March to battle high levels of air pollution, and strengthen its domestic recycling systems. 

What Does This Mean for Corvallis?
China had become the chief importer of recyclable materials as commingled collections increased and low labor costs could handle the extra sorting required. But the new program reduces imports by placing increased standards on recyclable plastics.

On October 18, Julie Jackson of Republic Services told attendees of the Benton County Environmental Issues Advisory Committee Fall Forum that the increase in inspections by China has led to whole shiploads of plastics already being turned away at ports; a result of the new contamination standards coming into play.

Jackson also said that China’s National Sword isn’t just affecting Oregon recycling, but most of the U.S. and Western Europe. Recycling facilities in Oregon have begun slowing their sorting lines in order to meet China’s new standards. 

The flow of recyclables has not slowed, causing the amount of on-site materials to exceed storage capacity. While Oregon used to have its own market for recycled paper, that market disappeared after the closure of newspaper mills in Newberg and Oregon City in 2015.

DEQ has sought out stopgap measures, but they are only short-term solutions. 

“When all options to find markets for recyclable commodities have been exhausted,” a DEQ memo said, “DEQ concurs that landfilling these materials on a temporary basis is an unfortunate but needed option at this time.”

Oregon’s paint and electronic recycling programs remain unaffected, and steel, aluminum, cardboard – along with food and yard waste – recycling remain the same. Oregonians may also continue to use bottle redemption centers to get back their $0.10 deposits.

Recycling will continue to be collected in Oregon, as the goal is to eventually recycle everything, Jackson told me after the EIAC forum. So, people should carry on as usual with their recycling habits as the issue is dealt with at the state and national levels.

By Andy Hahn