For decades China has taken America's recycled paper, plastics, electronics and other materials and turned them into finished goods for sale in the U.S.
Changing times in China, however, are disrupting the flow, creating a bottleneck that reaches all the way back to curbs in Jackson County.
China is cracking down on what its recycling plants accept, shutting some down, improving its processing and banning contaminants such as glass.
As a result, what goes in those handy-dandy, red-topped recycling carts you roll out to the street for Rogue Disposal and others to haul off will no longer go the recycling route.
"We've been sending stuff to China for three decades," said Garry Penning, director of governmental affairs and marketing at Rogue Disposal. "When we first started our commingling programs, they needed the raw materials."
For a variety of reasons, the demand has dwindled.
China has taken note of its own environmental concerns and has begun taking steps that will pare down recycling — its sixth-largest import from the U.S.
Beijing notified the World Trade Organization in July that it plans to ban the import of 24 varieties of solid waste and recyclables, including types of plastic, unsorted paper and metals commonly acquired from the U.S., according to a memo from Oregon Refuse and Recycling Association. The ban is part of a broader Chinese customs program known as “Operation Green Fence,” aimed at reducing waste importation and contamination of recyclable materials.
"These changes are now creating a potential crisis, in terms of impacts to the recycling industry on the West Coast in particular," according to a joint statement from Rogue Disposal & Recycling, Southern Oregon Sanitation, and Recology. "These proposed market changes could potentially affect the ability to continue to recycle items our communities have long been accustomed to recycling."
Mills that once recycled cardboard in Oregon City and Newberg are gone. It will take years to replace them and rebuild recycling infrastructure here, Penning said.
"There are other export opportunities available, but they can't consume anywhere near what China does. China can consume the bulk of the material because they manufacture so much."
Part of the crackdown has to do with what the industry calls "wishful recycling," hoping whatever goes in the bin can be used again.
Years ago, contamination levels reached 20 to 25 percent, with Styrofoam, plastic hoses, grocery bags — even engine blocks — included in the bales. That figure has dropped significantly, but not enough.
"There is so much contamination in mixed waste paper and plastics that China is not going to import stuff unless it meets a threshold of less than 1 percent," Penning said. "Nobody knows if they can reach that threshold."
At the same time, U.S. firms licensed to export recycling materials are getting squeezed. Companies allowed to ship 10,000 tons monthly may only be able to deliver 4,000 tons to China.
"They've got to find a home for the other 6,000 tons," Penning said. "They will be limited to how much can be processed compared to their historical amount."
That ripples back on collection companies, who truck recycling up and down the coast to massive sorting operations.
Refuse and recycling firms have asked the Department of Environmental Quality to approve temporary measures to take the overflow recycling to landfills, he said.
"We will run out of places to store it in a few days, and we have no place to move it," Penning said. "The DEQ says it's going to turn those things around fast. It could happen in a few days, but we don't know when they will approve it."
Containers are sitting in China, full of recycling bales, because of the new ban.
"Exporters don't like their assets tied up," Penning said.
Recycling, once a revenue stream for disposal firms, is now a cost — $80 or more per ton this month.
"The material has slowly backed up to the U.S., all the way back to the curb," Penning said. "Short-term, everybody is full. Long-term, we may not be able to ship it, even if we're willing to pay exorbitant costs."
At least for now, he said, collection bills won't rise.
Consumers can help by diligently putting the right stuff in the recycling cart. Plastic bags, of any type, and pizza boxes are the most common no-nos.
Changes in Oregon will have an impact as well, he said. In 2018, recycled glass, cold-brew coffee, energy drinks and sports drinks, once simply tossed in the recycling bin, will have 10-cent deposits.
— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.