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Recycling ambiguity starts at home, but the trends are affected by policies set across the world

PMG PHOTO: JUSTIN MUCH - Global changes are affecting recycling and garbage disposal practices locally.The information may not help when you are trying to figure out if the non-returnable plastic bottle in your hand should go into the garbage or recycling bin, but there is a reason for the ambiguity that has surfaced around recycling in recent years.

Last week Woodburn City Council received a visit from KJ Lewis, municipal manager for Republic Services, who shed some light on where changes in garbage disposal practices stem. As it turns out, the source begins at home while the blowback comes from overseas.

Lewis gave a council a Power Point presentation titled "Recycling is Broken." The nutshell is that China was handling most of the US disposable waste two years ago, and it is no longer in the market for that "product." So recycle materials have to go somewhere else, be it another market or the landfill.

One graphic in the presentation depicted a river of waste, flowing from the industrialized "Group of Seven" (G7) countries – Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom and USA. That waste river flowed into a confluence that gushed into China as recently as 2017. Fast forward one year and that river to China thinned down to a small stream; the market for those recycled materials dried up.

COURTESY OF REPUBLIC SERVICES - Once a recycling heavy receiver, policy changes known as the Chinese Natoinal Sword are affecting waste disposal in the US and other industrialized nations.

That phenomenon is described as the Chinese National Sword, a policy implemented in 2018 that clamped down on imports of solid wastes as raw materials. The Chinese were especially uninterested in tainted or dirty recyclables.

The graphic also depicted other countries receiving the recyclables, but Lewis pointed out that those markets are quickly becoming saturated.

"By 2018 we have discovered new markets, but many of these markets are now saturated and unprepared for the influx of recycling materials – not just from the US, but from other countries as well," Lewis said.

Another graphic showed a price decrease for many materials within the short span of a year, such as plastics and mixed paper, which essentially creates a glut in the recycling market.

"It's just basic supply and demand," Lewis said. "We have a lot of things that cannot be bought. So that results in a very, very negative value for most quantities, especially mixed paper and mixed plastics. And only 35 percent of household quantities have a deposit value."

Lewis also told the council that traditionally the cost of recycling has been purposefully controlled in order to encourage it.

"Originally, when we were asking people to adopt recycling…we basically held the cost down artificially so people would want to do it," she said, adding that the idea was that eventually people would adopt the practice as second nature. "Also, costs were low due to the materials being cleaner and heavier.

"We have more contamination now, and that's one of the reasons China does not want our recycling anymore."

Lewis said costs are still artificially low, but waste-disposal operations such as Republic Service are incurring higher costs as they apply innovative strategies for processing more materials. They are also looking for more domestic recycling markets.

The upshot of it all is that Republic Services and a host of other entities involved with solid waste disposal and ramping up public awareness and education. Elements of that include reassessment of accepted materials, better tracking systems and an emphasis on cleaner recycling materials.

So what was once as simple as looking for a triangular figure on a throwaway that signified that it could be recycled, is now gravitating to a much more complex process.

Some materials, such as detergent bottles, were recyclable 20 years ago, but may now be made with a non-recyclable material. To confuse the issue more, some materials can be recycled in some areas, but not in others. For example glass bottles "have value in the Pacific Northwest," Lewis said, but not necessarily elsewhere.

While changes in the recycling process should be expected, some tried-and-true elements remain (for now), such as newspapers, phone books, brochures, magazines envelopes and junk mail are all acceptable.

And while the Oregon legislature has ratcheted up deposits and the range of beverage container's requiring them, clean plastic bottles and jugs and metal cans are pretty much universally recyclable.

Still confused? Don't worry, more changes are likely in store. But for the most current recycling protocol, Republic Services offers a downloadable guide at, a guide that can be printed out – and recycled.

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