When recyclables have nowhere to go
Some recyclables collected in the Portland area are now being dumped in the landfill, thanks to China's decision to stop buying our mixed paper and plastic scraps for reuse.
For now, metro-area residents won't be asked to change what they put in curbside recycling bins, but many should expect higher garbage bills.
"We're still going to be recycling most of it," said Matt Korot, Metro's recycling program director. And while the industry is in flux, officials don't want to confuse residents with a series of curbside collection changes.
"If you shut the faucet off, sometimes when you turn it back on, it just dribbles back," explains Jerry Powell, editor, publisher and owner of Resource Recycling Inc., a Portland trade journal publisher.
One future possibility is asking residents to stop putting certain plastics and papers in their curbside bins. Another is asking them to separate out some papers and plastics that have value to various domestic manufacturers if they aren't mixed with others.
"It seems the current situation will be with us for a while," Korot said, so Metro and municipal solid waste officials in its jurisdiction won't be seeking changes to curbside recycling for a while. "I wouldn't think we would be looking at changes this year."
But one change is in store: Higher garbage and recycling fees.
Costs have risen at metro-area materials recycling facilities, where haulers bring recyclables to be sorted and baled for sale to China and other markets. Those facilities are stockpiling some of the materials that once were bound for China, in hopes of finding other buyers or to sort out the more valuable components.
China announced last year it will no longer accept recyclables that have more than 0.5 percent foreign materials by weight, an unrealistic standard for mixed paper and plastics.
"In all cases, the costs are going to go up," Powell said. "So the economics of curbside-type materials is really in trouble right now."
In response, municipalities are bracing to raise garbage fees when their new budget years begin in July, Korot said. There are indications Portland and Gresham will seek rate increases even sooner, he said.
As costs go up to sort and stockpile recyclables, their market value has gone down.
The price for mixed paper in the Chicago market recently fell to zero, Powell said. "You can't give it away for free."
Changes around the state
In other parts of Oregon, local governments have already altered their curbside recycling programs, including in Marion and Jackson counties, said Peter Spendelow, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality's recycling specialist.
Milton-Freewater, in Eastern Oregon, dropped its curbside program entirely. "They're going to open up a couple of depots for the public to drop off at," Spendelow said.
Under Oregon law, local governments may only allow burying recyclables in a landfill if the DEQ agrees that's cheaper than trying to sell them.
In a report issued Feb. 23, DEQ listed 16 recycling companies that have been approved to send select materials to the landfill. As of Jan. 31, that's amounted to 6,107 tons of material.
Metro, which oversees the Portland-area's garbage and recycling systems, is stricter, and doesn't allow such an economic test for this area.
But in November, the regional government decided the current "crisis period" warranted a loosening of that rule, Korot said. Metro agreed to follow the statewide practice, for a six-month period lasting until May 6.
Pioneer Recycling Services, which operates a regional materials recycling facility in Clackamas, got the nod to send aseptic containers and cartons to the landfill, according to DEQ. Willamette Resources, which operates in Wilsonville and Tualatin, got a one-time authorization to send film plastic and rigid plastic containers to the landfill. Waste Connections, which operates in the city of Portland and Clackamas County, got one-time approval to send scrap paper to the landfill.
Similar requests are expected from other materials recycling facilities in the Portland area, Korot said, perhaps as soon as this week.
Spendelow notes that 6,071 tons sent to landfills from October through January is a tiny share of the mixed recyclables collected at Oregon curbsides. Each year, Oregon recycles 340,000 tons of commingled materials from curbsides, he said.
That doesn't count extensive recycling of separated materials, usually from businesses, including 392,000 tons of scrap metal, 286,000 tons of cardboard, 107,000 tons of glass, and 70,000 tons of paper.
Resource Recycling, based in Southeast Portland, just organized a national plastics recycling conference in Nashville that attracted a record 2,000 attendees from 42 countries.
One of the recurring themes was a looming "reinvestment cycle," Powell said. Big Chinese companies with modern, cleaner operations are replacing smaller "dirty" industries. There's talk of some of them expanding into Vietnam.
There's also been huge increases in mixed plastics exported to India, Vietnam and Indonesia. That's taking up some of the slack from China's cutoff, though no one thinks it will be enough.
Powell predicts pressure from large Chinese paper companies, which rely on imported material to make shipping boxes and other materials, will convince their government to loosen the new standard.
Spendelow said Oregon can't bank on that.
"We keep on saying that, and it hasn't happened," he said.
More promising is talk of luring a Chinese company to the Northwest, where a new plant could take all the plastics collected in Oregon and Washington. Then it would sort it, clean it, and convert it to pellets that would be cheaper to ship to China.
DEQ has been discussing such a project with its counterparts in Seattle. That could eventually provide a robust market for sales of recyclable plastic again, but that could take several months if not years to develop, Spendelow said.
In addition, the advent of fracking oil extraction techniques has made it cheaper to produce plastics, so there's less demand for recycled plastics, he said.
There's also talk of a modern new paper mill in the Northwest that would buy up recycled paper here for remanufacturing. But that would require close to $500 million and take four to six years to build, Powell said.
Ironically, not too long ago, Oregon had four mills capable of using recycled paper, in Oregon City, West Linn, Newberg and Albany, but all were shut down as production shifted to China and other countries.
All have since been dismantled, so there's no hope for restarting any of them.
Find out more
To see the recycling companies that won permission from the DEQ to take recyclables to a landfill: oregon.gov/deq/FilterDocs/mm-disposalconcurr.pdf