Panic gripped Oregon's bustling recycling system last fall after China announced it would stop buying our mixed paper and plastic collected at curbsides.
But relief is on the way, at least for recyclable plastic.
When China set impossible-to-meet purity standards for importing our mixed recyclables, bales of plastic and paper started piling up at recycling processing centers. Some Oregon communities were approved to bury unwanted recyclables in landfills. Others, including Marion County, scaled back what residents can put in curbside bins. And Portland and other jurisdictions scurried to raise garbage and recycling fees to cover the higher costs.
But at a National Recycling Coalition conference in Portland last week, it became clear that the vacuum caused by China's actions is starting to get filled for mixed plastics, in a variety of ways.
"We are already partly weathering the storm with plastics," Dylan de Thomas, vice president of industry collaboration for The Recycling Partnership, told the audience of professional recyclers convening in Portland.
Materials recovery facilities, which accept recyclables dropped off by garbage haulers and then sort and bale them for resale, are finding new buyers in Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia for some of our plastic, and India and Thailand for some of our paper.
"A few months ago, we weren't able to ship anything; right now we're able to move stuff," said Vinod Singh, operations manager for Far West Recycling Inc., which operates two of Oregon's five materials recovery facilities, all in the Portland area.
Marjie Griek, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition, appealed to conference attendees to find ways to keep recyclables in the domestic market, where they can be reused by local industries.
"Why ship it away?" Grief challenged folks in the industry. "Let's create jobs."
The all-day conference, co-sponsored by the Association of Oregon Recyclers, focused on developing new markets to reuse mixed plastic and paper scraps.
At a time when some are questioning whether to scale back curbside recycling programs, the conference showed that "recycling is alive and healthy," said Kim Holmes, the Portland-based vice president for sustainability for the Plastics Industry Association.
And the Portland area remains a hotbed for the recycling industry.
New uses for Styrofoam
John Desmarteau Jr., a project engineer for Agilyx Corp. in Tigard, told attendees his company plans an April 19 ribbon-cutting on a new plant that can process 10 tons a day of polystyrene — also known as Styrofoam — and will need more recycled material to process there.
Agilyx developed an innovative chemical recycling process to turn it into material that can produce more polystyrene, considered one of the hardest-to-recycle plastics. It's commonly used to package electronics and other goods and to serve food.
Metro gets lots of calls to its recycling hotline from Portland-area residents asking where they can recycle polystyrene, said Matt Korot, the regional government's recycling program manager.
"That is a very significant development in terms of a technological leap," Holmes said of Agilyx's new operation. The material can now be remanufactured for "food-grade" uses, she said.
More bags needed
Virginia-based Trex Co. Inc., which converts plastic into decking materials, has a growing appetite for more recyclable plastics, said Matt Weber, a senior regional recycling account representative. The company, which uses the plastic bags returned to local groceries such as Fred Meyer, and also buys stretch film, foam and bubble wrap, hopes to increase its purchases from about 1.2 billion pounds in 2015 to 2 billion pounds by 2020, Weber said.
Weber, who is responsible for seven Western states and four Canadian provinces, said he's getting more calls from Portland now than anywhere else in his territory.
Jan Rayman, founder and CEO of The ReWall Company, based in Iowa, told conference attendees he has financing to expand soon to Oregon and several other states. ReWall buys milk and other cartons and converts them into drywall and roofing. "Now it's time to scale up," Rayman said, projecting the company will quickly grow from buying 10,000 tons a year of recyclables to 200,000 tons.
More plastics sorting
The holy grail of plastics recycling in the Northwest is the idea of a regional plastics recovery facility. That could accept deliveries of all types of plastics, sort them for various reuses, then turn some of it into pellets for remanufacturing other plastics. Pellets or bales of specialty plastics could then go directly to U.S.-based industries, instead of being sent on container ships to China or other Asian nations.
Far West and the other Portland-area materials recovery facilities could then sell their mixed plastics to that secondary sorting facility.
Chinese investors are known to be scouting out sites to develop such a facility somewhere in the Northwest to accept all of Oregon and Washington's mixed plastics. Both states must collaborate to provide the necessary amount of material to supply such a facility.
So far, the Seattle area, such as Tacoma, appears to have the edge for landing such a facility, though de Thomas recently heard Salem mentioned as a possible site.
"I see hope in Chinese recyclers coming to the U.S.," de Thomas said. "They're the ones that have the relationships with the manufacturers" back in China.
Lisa Sepanski, project manager for King County's Solid Waste Division, said a new secondary plastic recovery facility might not be needed in the Northwest, since Vancouver, British Columbia's Merlin Plastics recently announced it can scale up its purchases of recyclable plastic, and could buy all of Oregon and Washington's scraps.
However, just as Southern and Eastern Oregon communities have found it highly expensive to truck their recyclables to the five sorting facilities in the Portland area, it might be too costly to ship plastics from Oregon all the way to B.C.
Far West Recycling is exploring the idea with Merlin, Singh said. It may be worth the higher costs compared to burying it in landfills, he said, because of the environmental and economic development benefits.
Another potential buyer of mixed plastics is Denton Plastics, based in Gresham. Denton now buys sorted plastic from industrial companies, turning it into pellets and flakes that are mostly sold to domestic manufacturers. It also recently announced it wants to expand its supply of materials.
Company founder Dennis Denton was quoted in an Eastern Washington publication in December saying he hopes to build a new plant to sort and recycle all types of plastics, and was looking at locations in the Portland area. Nicole Janssen, company president, told a recent conference of the Association of Oregon Recyclers of Denton's hopes to expand.
Everything is in flux now, Holmes said, but clearly there are many ideas for recycling plastics being discussed.
"There seems to be a Plan A, B and C in the works."
Paper recycling more challenging, costly than plastic
Surprisingly, finding new ways to reuse recycled paper in the Northwest is proving more challenging than developing new uses for plastics.
For starters, "there's way, way more paper than there is plastics," said Dylan de Thomas, vice president of industry collaboration for The Recycling Partnership.
Mixed paper accounts for about 60 percent of what Oregonians put in their curbside recycling bins, said Vinod Singh, operations manager for Far West Recycling Inc. Far West operates two of Oregon's five materials recovery facilities, which accept, sort and resell recyclables brought by garbage haulers.
The environmental imperative for reusing plastics is greater.
Paper is made from a renewable resource — trees. Plastic comes from fossil fuels and persists for decades when it's tossed as litter, fouling rivers and oceans.
Recycling paper is an older technology and less complicated, but it turns out to be more expensive.
New paper mills are estimated to cost $500 million to $1 billion, so no one expects one to be built any time soon in the Northwest.
"It's just not a nimble industry because of the size of paper mills and the needs they have," said Matt Korot, Metro recycling program manager.
But reusing and adapting a shuttered paper mill would be cheaper than starting anew. There are four closed mills in the Northwest that once processed recycled paper, and there was talk at last week's National Recycling Coalition conference in Portland of refurbishing one to make pulp. The pulp could then be sent to China, where there's huge demand for making paper and cardboard.
"We are still going to be shipping all the stuff over from China and the stuff has to be in boxes," de Thomas said. Since China announced strict new standards for accepting our recycled paper scraps, the price of pulp there has "skyrocketed," he said.
There's been rumors of a Chinese paper manufacturer looking at a potential pulp facility in the Seattle area, de Thomas said. He also heard one paper company is looking at one of the closed mills in Oregon as a possible site. Korot said the former mill in Newberg has been discussed as a possible target.
— Steve Law
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