One country’s trash is another country’s…well, trash

Jason Kaplan
The North Portland depot of Far West Recycling

China, once the largest importer of Oregon’s mixed paper and plastic recyclables, plans to stop buying these resources as of January 2018.

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This abrupt change slowed sorting lines, stopped long-time services and has Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs) and Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality scrambling for a solution.

In the past, China bought a lot of recyclable materials from the U.S. It’s our country’s sixth largest export to theirs, worth about $5 billion a year, according to CNN Money.

Used as feedstock for their manufacturing base, it made economic sense to load empty cargo ships with mixed paper and plastic—often contaminated with non-recyclable waste like yard debris and dirty diapers—and sort it on arrival back in China.

However, the high level of contamination, the damage to China’s environment and public health and the low cost of oil needed to make virgin plastic creates a new equation.

“China just can’t get the same value out of a bale of mixed plastics that it used to,” explains Pete Chisolm-Winfield, Association of Oregon Recyclers.  “And they don’t want to be left with the undesirable materials.”

“There is something fundamentally flawed about sending our waste overseas.” — Jen Coleman

Hence, the ban. Called National Sword ’17, it hits Oregon particularly hard. While local markets for high-value recyclables — think cardboard, milk jugs and plastic bottles with a $.10 deposit — is strong, there is no buyer west of the Mississippi for the mixed plastic and paper that commingle in our rolling recycling carts.

Unless it is meticulously screened for contamination by an MRF. National Sword ’17 demands a contamination level below .3%.

“That is unobtainable to meet with our single-stream, comingled recycling system,” admits Vinod Singh, outreach manager for Far West Recycling. “Our goal was to get below 1% but we were consistently in the 3%-4% range.”

Far West is trying to do better. Singh reports that four to five people were added to their Hillsboro location, which sorts materials for 110 hours a week. But the labor market is tight, and there’s just so many workers a line can accommodate and so many hours an operation can run. Meanwhile the recyclables keep coming in…and piling up.

The growing trash pile has derailed New Seasons Market, a company that prides itself on their triple-bottom line, long-standing policy of collecting plastic bags, films, clamshells and lids. These items are not allowed in curbside roll carts and are part of the contamination problem when they make it in.

“The recycling market is changing quickly and we’re working quickly to adapt,” says Sarah Joannides, New Seasons’ Director of Social Responsibility via email. “We are also looking at ways to adjust packaging on New Seasons products in light of the changing recycling options.”

New Seasons does not have numbers on how much plastic waste they were taking, but the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality reports that in 2016, 16,786 commingled tons of rigid plastic and 3,256 commingled tons of film plastic were collected. Together they represent less than 6% of commingled recyclables collected for the year.

The bigger item, representing 54% of recyclables and weighing in at 190,007 commingled tons, is mixed paper. Newspaper mills in Oregon City and Newberg bought this resource, even if it was contaminated with plastic clamshells and lids, until they closed in 2015. Since then 2/3 of it was sold to China.

And now?

For the short term, processors are trying to find new markets for contaminated, commingled goods. Some purchasers have moved to Vietnam and Indonesia, but their markets are not as robust as China’s. Plus, their lax environmental rules and cheap labor pool doesn’t solve the problem so much as move it.

“There is something fundamentally flawed about sending our waste overseas,” says Jen Coleman, Health Communications & Outreach Director, Oregon Environmental Council. “We have one global environment and poor waste management practices will eventually come back to us.”

Moving back to sorting recyclables at the curb also seems unlikely. “We don’t want to disrupt our current recycling program,” says Singh. He feels that developing more domestic markets for the material would be the best option but admits that’s a long-term goal.

Spendlow also thinks the solution lies here at home and points to state-of-the-art machinery that simplifies sorting. He also notes British Columbia’s Industry Product Stewardship model. Here a producer’s responsibility for reducing environmental impact and managing the product is extended across the whole life cycle of the product, from selection of materials and design to its end-of-life. 

The model is efficient because there is one Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO) for a specific product that does it all; sorts, cleans and with their economies of scale, finds a market. But there’s a downside too.

“No competition may mean no innovation,” says Spendlow. He also admits that the idea may not have the political momentum to gain any traction in the U.S.  

If the problem gets bad enough MRF’s could petition to landfill the stuff. But no one would be happy with that solution. Singh is optimistic that it won’t come to that.

“This industry is pretty resilient,” he says, recalling past recessions and Port strikes, “but it will shake out.”