Pending closure of two Far West Recycling depots highlights lack of remaining options for harder-to-recycle plastic items

TRIBUNE PHOTO: STEVE LAW - Far West Recycling will close its Southeast Portland and Lake Oswego public depots next month, where diligent recyclers have brought items not acceptable in curbside programs. Now clamshell containers, shown here, are best put in the garbage, to go into the landfill.  These are trying times for diligent home recyclers.

Across the Portland area, ardent environmentalists have been stockpiling clamshell plastic containers and other harder-to-recycle items that can't go into curbside bins, then taking them to Far West Recycling's public depots when they accumulate enough to warrant a special trip. Church groups, neighborhood associations and nonprofits also have relied on Far West depots when they host periodic recycling and cleanup events.

But after China announced last year it would effectively halt buying mixed plastic and paper scraps exported from the U.S., Far West and others had to scramble to find new markets for those goods.

Initially, Far West reduced the plastics it was willing to accept from the general public at its public recycling depots, and starting charging a mandatory $5 fee. Now it's pulling the plug entirely on its Southeast Portland and Lake Oswego depots, as of Sept. 24.

"Both locations just continue to lose money, month after month," said Vinod Singh, Far West operations manager. "It's come down to higher costs and no income" from reselling the recycled goods, he said.

Those goods lost much of their economic value when China announced its new restrictions.

Far West's primary business is operating two large materials recycling facilities in Northeast Portland and Hillsboro, where haulers take curbside recyclables to be sorted, cleaned and baled for resale. Far West also collects metals and electronic waste at its Tualatin and Southeast Portland satellite facilities. Those will continue to operate, Singh said, as will as its Hillsboro depot, though it no longer accepts recyclables there that aren't allowed in curbside programs.

Alternatives to Far West

There still are options to recycle some plastics not permitted in curbside bins. The Hollywood Fred Meyer hosted a community recycling event on July 21, where Denton Plastics collected sorted and clean plastics (#2, #4, #5), and even larger items. The Gresham-based plastics manufacturer, which grinds up old plastics for reuse, has said it wants to increase its supply, but it has relatively high standards for clean and sorted plastics.

Agilyx Corp., which recently started up a polystyrene (Styrofoam) recycling plant, wants to collect more of that material at its Tigard plant.

Fred Meyer and Safeway stores also continue to accept plastic bags used for produce and bulk items at the stores, though

But other plastics not allowed at the curbside will remain harder to recycle for the general public.

Metro, which serves as a clearinghouse for information about recycling in the Portland area, isn't aware of any regularly scheduled events such as the one hosted by Fred Meyer, said Pam Peck, the agency's resource conservation and recycling manager.

Celeste Lewis, who helps organize community recycling events in Southwest Portland, advises people to toss their clamshell containers in the trash, and try to avoid buying products in those and other nonrecyclable plastic containers. Lewis said even when China was buying our scrap plastics, clamshells were often burned for fuel in Asia rather than recycled.

Environmentally minded citizens also could start bringing their own reusable containers, such as when eating at food carts or bringing home restaurant leftovers.

Positive signs

Far West has managed to find new markets to sell its mixed-paper bales in Vietnam and Malaysia, as well as among domestic buyers, Singh said. .

Rather than piling up in bales waiting for buyers, "paper's moving," Singh said. "That's fortunate, because that's the bulk of what comes out of the curbside."

He cautioned that conditions change frequently. Vietnam and Malaysia quickly got overwhelmed accepting paper that had gone to China, and then cut back what they'd accept.

And the market for selling plastics remains precarious.

"Mixed plastics are very difficult to market. That's what we're running up against right now," Singh said.

Some of it is going to a processing facility in British Columbia. There also are efforts to create a plastics sorting operation in Washington or Oregon, which would make it easier for companies like Denton to reuse the material.

Less being trashed

The crisis sparked by China has resulted in what before was unthinkable — burying Oregon recyclables in the landfill.

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality and Metro have permitted that since last fall, in cases when it's cheaper than recycling. That's been the case for some municipal waste authorities in Southern Oregon, because they have to haul recyclables to materials recycling facilities in the Portland area.

But in recent months, the volume of recyclables being buried in landfills in Oregon has sharply declined. In April, May and June, buried volumes hovered at half the amount landfilled in March, and about one-quarter of the peak levels reached in February and last November.

While roughly 11,500 tons of recyclables have gone to landfills since last September, that amounts to only 2 percent of the state's total materials collected for recycling, according to DEQ.

COURTESY: OREGON DEQ - The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has approved 'landfilling' of recyclables collected at the curbside on 26 occasions in the past year. Mostly those have been for solid waste agencies that must transport recyclables several hundred miles to Portland-area materials recycling facilities, so it's more economical to bury them instead. 
But the amount of recyclables being buried in landfills has dropped considerably in the past few months. One reason for the reduction is that some municipal authorities have reduced what they allow in curbside recycling bins. In such cases, the discontinued recyclables may wind up in the landfill when tossed in the trash, but don't get counted by the DEQ.

So far, solid waste authorities in the Portland area haven't changed what they allow in curbside bins.

Officials continue to study the problem, evaluating potential changes in the curbside mix and seeking to build new markets for recycled scrap. Recycling experts say the best way for citizens to do their part is to make sure they place only clean, allowable materials in their curbside bins.

Find out more

For details on what's allowed in curbside recycling bins, check out:

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