Avoiding 'wishful recycling'
Lake Oswego has begun to feel the impact of changes to the global recycling market in the aftermath of China's late-2017 crackdown on contaminant standards for its imports of plastics and other used materials.
City officials say they're receiving an increasing number of questions from confused residents who want to know: How exactly have the rules changed? Can we still recycle the same items? Are our recycling rates going to go up? And can we still recycle things locally?
The short answer, says Sustainability and Management Analyst Jenny Slepian, is that "from a curbside perspective, nothing has actually changed. The rules are the same."
"But what we've been doing — not just in Lake Oswego, but everywhere — is 'wishful recycling,'" Slepian says. And China is no longer willing to fulfill those wishes.
The problem is that consumers tend to throw non-recyclable plastics in the recycling bin, Slepian says, in the hope that they can be recycled or because it feels wrong to toss them in the garbage — hence the term "wishful recycling." But all of those non-recyclable items have to be pulled back out before the bulk plastic can be reprocessed.
Until last year, China had become one of the biggest importers of bulk discarded plastic items due to a strong domestic demand for reprocessed raw plastic, and many U.S. exporters had been relying on China to sort through their bulk products.
But under the new policy, China only accepts bulk plastic imports with less than 1.5 percent contamination, and Slepian says that threshold is almost impossible to meet. A fully loaded curbside recycling bin, for example, would exceed the 1.5 percent threshold if it had just one to-go coffee cup mixed in with otherwise acceptable plastics.
Slepian says many Lake Oswego consumers who have learned about the rules in recent months have assumed that some of the no-go items have been restricted due to China's actions, but the truth is that none of those items have ever been recyclable.
That's why American consumers used to have to separate their recycling into multiple bins, Slepian says. But in the 1990s, waste haulers began switching to single bins in order to make the process easier and encourage more recycling.
The plan worked, Slepian says, but it also made consumers a bit too quick to assume that any plastic was recyclable, when in reality they had been relying on China to sort out the trash without realizing it.
"The idea was to make it easier for people, but in some ways it was just asking for contaminants," she says.
According to Slepian, there are many types of plastic items that simply can't be recycled because they're too small or the plastic is too low-grade to be reprocessed. Even if a container is stamped with a numbered recycling symbol, that doesn't necessarily mean it can be recycled; the size, shape and thickness of the plastic item matters more.
Buckets, jugs, tubs and bottles greater than six ounces tend to be acceptable, Slepian says, while clamshell-style boxes and other take-out containers generally fall into the no-go category, along with plastic bags, plastic-coated cardboard, to-go cups and a whole host of other items.
"If you take it out, leave it out," Slepian says about food containers.
Anything with food contamination is also no good — although in Lake Oswego, food-contaminated napkins and paper towels can be composted instead.
Residents can view a more complete list of recyclable items at ci.oswego.or.us/recycle/recycling, and Slepian says they can always call her at 503-635-0291 with questions.
Reduce, reuse, recycle
With the Chinese market restricted and contaminated bulk plastics piling up, U.S. recycling companies are searching for new buyers, Slepian says. But in the meantime, they don't have the facilities and personnel in place to do all the sorting domestically.
That's part of why recycling rates have gone up in many places, Slepian says, and why the City of Lake Oswego recently authorized a monthly recycling surcharge. Local haulers like Republic Services need more funding to cover the cost of stockpiling the plastic or sorting it stateside.
Some residents have been asking if Lake Oswego's recycling has been going into the landfill, Slepian says, and the answer so far is no. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has authorized more plastic to go into landfills and some haulers in Southern Oregon have had to do so, she says, but Republic Services and other local haulers have been able to stockpile the plastic instead.
Slepian says the situation does have one silver lining: People are becoming more aware of how many plastics are non-recyclable, and more conscientious about how much plastic they use as consumers.
That's important, she says, because one of the biggest ways people can help is by reducing their own plastic consumption in various ways — bringing their own coffee cups to work, taking their own bags to the grocery store or using more durable products at home.
"Recycling was never meant to be the first option," Slepian says. "You reduce, you reuse, and then you recycle."
That's something Lake Oswego seems to have taken to heart, Slepian says. The city's collected recycling has a lower contaminant rate than that of many other nearby municipalities, and she says the frequent questions she gets from consumers indicate that residents are really committed to recycling.
"I think people genuinely want to do the right thing, and they want to get it right," Slepian says. "I'm very happy when people are upset that they can't recycle (certain) things. It means they care."