Determining the future of local recycling
Prineville Disposal staff is trying to figure out how to conduct its recycling program following a drastic change to the recycling market.
This past fall, China, the primary purchaser of recycled materials worldwide, decided they would no longer be buying recyclable items from the U.S. or anywhere else. According to Prineville Disposal owner Steve Holliday, there was too much junk included in what was sent to China that had to be removed, prompting the country to decide enough was enough.
Since that decision, communities throughout Oregon have been working on new plans as they wait for new recycling markets to open in the U.S. However, little is settled at this point, and Holliday said Prineville Disposal is making adjustments as necessary.
One such change, made in February and driven primarily by economic factors, was to start taking all items in the green-lid recycling cans to the Crook County Landfill where the rest of the trash already goes.
"The Oregon DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) mandates we provide these (recycling) services, and when the market collapsed, we were paying $90 to $100 a ton to recycle," he said. "It is $35 a ton to take it to the landfill."
Even the landfill expense is greater than what Prineville Disposal used to face prior to China's decision to stop taking recycling. Holliday said they would sometimes break even and pay nothing, other times pay around $10 a ton or even get paid $10 a ton for the recycled items.
The decision to take recyclables to the landfill came after the DEQ told Holliday and other communities to "do whatever your community deems necessary" in the wake of drastically rising recycling costs. He also talked to Prineville City Manager Steve Forrester and Crook County Judge Seth Crawford, and Holliday said they both agreed the landfill was the best option for the time being.
Holliday points out that many items that people have learned to sort for recycling over the years will not necessarily end up recycled by processing facilities. Processing plants, like the one in Portland where Prineville Disposal had sent its items, might throw stuff away, too, because there is currently no market for most of the materials.
"There are still no guarantees that it will get recycled," Holliday said, "so in my eyes, when we decided to go ahead and take it to the landfill, at least we are not having to raise the rates for nothing. It didn't solve the problem raising the rates to cover the extra fees to take it to the processor when they might end up throwing it away as well."
Holliday is hoping to eventually start sending recycling to processing mills again, however, he expects Prineville Disposal will have to dramatically scale down what materials they will accept in the customers' recycling bins. Items that will continue to have a market include milk jugs and plastic juice or soda containers, newspapers and some white office paper, aluminum and tin cans and corrugated cardboard. Other traditionally recycled materials have no value, Holliday said, because nobody is willing to take them.
"You are getting back to old-school products that got recycled (when recycling first began)," he remarked. "All of that will still have a home. It doesn't have to travel overseas."
Such changes are still in development, so at this point, Holliday recommends that Prineville Disposal customers continue to refer to the larger list of acceptable recycle materials (available on the company's website). And though everything currently goes to the landfill, Holliday still urges customers to keep sorting items and putting them in the recycle bins as if nothing has changed. Every so often, Prineville Disposal will sort and bail some of those items and send them to a processor to test the market and see if anything has improved for the better.
"Last week, we bailed it and sent it to the mill to get a sample of the mix. What's the value now?" he said, adding that they did the same thing in June.
Ultimately, Holliday would like to reach a point where Prineville Disposal is sending recyclable items to a processing mill on a regular basis. But when that will happen and what materials the company will accept remains a mystery as the sanitation business navigates the new norm and waits for domestic markets to develop.
"It has been a ride for sure," he said.