Many items that previously have been recycled are headed for the trash heap until Northwest officials figure out what to do with them.
Jim Winterbottom, district manager of Waste Connections, Inc., which operates The Dalles Disposal and Hood River Garbage, told The Dalles City Council on Oct. 23 that China is not accepting recycled materials from the West Coast at this time. China’s action was sparked by contaminated recyclables, for example those saturated with food waste, being sent to China.
“All this stuff we’ve been getting away with for years is coming back to haunt us,” Winterbottom said. “We’re hoping in six months we can get back to the levels they (Chinese recyclers) can accept.”
“The amount of material that is contaminated —not only by incorrect materials being added to the mix, but also correct materials that aren’t clean — and it sits out in this cargo container for six months, you can imagine what it’s like when you open it up.”
According to Winterbottom, the Chinese are requiring that the level of contaminants in imported recyclables be in the 1.5 percent range, but historically, recyclables from the West Coast have had contaminants at a 15 to 20 percent level.
Because of the contamination, China recently launched what it called “Operation Green Fence” to halt the importation of bales of materials for recycling.
The ban is scheduled to go into full effect as of Jan. 1, 2018, but the impacts are already being felt on the local level.
According to Winterbottom, it’s the curbside, comingled recycling that has been creating the problem.
Comingled recycling is when plastics, unsorted paper, cardboard and metal cans are mixed together in the same bin.
Winterbottom has obtained permission from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to treat recyclables as garbage. He said comingled recyclables have been going to the landfill since Oct. 17.
Winterbottom pointed out, however, that many recyclables are not subject to the same level of contamination as the comingled materials. “We still are collecting glass, oil, cardboard, yard debris, scrap metal, car batteries; all that is still being captured,” he said.
Mayor Steve Lawrence asked Winterbottom if the materials people set out in the blue bins provided for recycling by The Dalles Disposal would be kept separate and stored until the recyclables are being processed again.
Winterbottom said that would not be the case.
“It’ll be mixed with garbage,” he said, adding that every truck and container he has available in The Dalles and Hood River is stuffed with recyclables that currently have no place to go.
Councilor Darcy Long-Curtiss asked Winterbottom if area residents would be told the materials in their recycling bins are being handled as garbage.
“I feel people have the right to know we are not recycling the stuff, so they can make a choice, because it does take a lot of effort. If we’re really not recycling it, people should know that,” she said.
“We want to be open about it, but the problem is, we’re going to take it to the landfill on us. If people put it in the garbage can and have extra, now all of a sudden I’m going to have to charge them extra for that as garbage.”
He said it’s important for people to continue their recycling habits, because as soon as the market issues are resolved, the materials can be routed back into the recycling stream.
“We will continue to collect them, but they will go to the landfill until the market is corrected,” said Winterbottom, adding that local collection centers will remain open.
Councilor Taner Elliott asked if it was simply wishful thinking to believe the problem could be corrected over the next month.
“Absolutely it’s wishful thinking,’” Winterbottom replied. “There is no way, with the current sorting facilities in the Portland/Vancouver area, that (1.5 percent contamination level) will be obtained. The only way to obtain that is to retrain and re-educate people to take materials out of the collection process.”
Winterbottom pointed out that the DEQ has already issued its “concurrence” regarding placing the recyclables in the landfill, and said there would be a review after three months.
Winterbottom said it’s possible the way recycling is handled in the United States may never be the same.
“I don’t know if we can get back to the amount of material we’ve accepted in the past,” he said. “We might be back to strictly tin and paper and cardboard.”