Our View: Don't let new rules scrap recycling
China's rules for recyclables are about to hit Portlanders directly in their pocketbooks.
A proposed $3-a-month emergency price increase for garbage and recycling pickup in Portland is annoying for a number of reasons. But in the end, the surcharge is necessary unless this region wants to reverse course on its longstanding commitment to being a recycling leader.
The connection between Chinese policies and curbside recycling in Portland is more direct than most people realize. As reported over the past few months by the Portland Tribune's Steve Law, China now is requiring unreasonable purity standards for buying our mixed plastic and paper scraps for reuse. If recyclables shipped to China don't meet those tests, they get sent back.
Because China formerly was a major market for buying our recyclables, its new — many would say, unfair — practices are driving up the cost of recycling, and making it impossible to get rid of some plastics and mixed paper at all. Plastic bottles, yogurt containers and bales of paper are piling up at recycling facilities, and it now is more expensive for garbage haulers to drop off a ton of recyclables at a local recovery facility than it is to ship a ton of garbage to the Eastern Oregon landfill that serves the Portland area.
The upside-down economics are disrupting the recycling ecosystem. It used to be that haulers might get money for dropping off plastics and paper. Now, they are having to pay to get rid of those materials. Until the markets get back to normal, the recyclables either have to be stored — which adds to the cost — or they have to be dumped in a landfill.
In response to the recycling problem, the Metro regional government, which manages the Portland area's solid waste, and the state Department of Environmental Quality have approved sending some specified recyclables to the landfill instead of reusing them. This solution may not be as bad for the environment as some people think, but it is in complete opposition to the Oregon recycling ethic.
And that's why Portland and other metro cities and counties are considering an emergency increase in fees. City staff, after reviewing financial documents from private haulers, will urge the Portland City Council to approve higher rates effective May 1.
The money would help garbage haulers, which have exclusive franchises to serve specific neighborhoods, offset their increased cost for recycled materials.
One risk in the turmoil caused by Chinese policy changes is that households could alter their recycling habits. Right now, most recyclables go into the familiar, large curbside containers, unsorted, and then are taken to materials recovery facilities, where specialized equipment separates the plastics from the paper and metal cans. If customers are told to stop putting their plastics and paper in the containers, it will be confusing and also difficult to retrain them when the markets recover.
As a stop-gap measure, the new fee makes sense. Portlanders cannot do much to influence recycling policies in China, but there are a few things — beyond paying an extra $3 per month — they might consider to help mitigate the problem.
The best solution is to develop more domestic industries that use recycled materials, so that the region is less dependent on China to put recyclables to use. Another small step would be to reduce reliance on plastic containers in favor of glass, which still has value domestically and right here in Oregon.
It is frustrating that China's policies are threatening this region's well-developed and long-established system for recycling. However, Oregon residents won't easily retreat from their commitment to recycling. This state was one of the first to see the value in reusing items that for years before were thrown away — sometimes in an unsightly manner.
Paying an extra $3 a month to preserve that system is worthwhile, as long as the additional fee is accompanied by other efforts to bring balance back to the recycling markets.