Recycling is all about making new products from old ones.
It’s as much about economics as it is about the environment. For a material to get recycled into a new good it needs two things: a market that can use the material and a way to get that material from the consumer to the market.
Sounds simple, but people often put unwanted items in the recycling cart or worse they put items in that ruin the wanted items. Meanwhile, materials are all mixed together in the cart and have to be sorted apart. “Recycling mixed materials is much like getting eggs from an omelet,” says Dylan de Thomas of The Recycling Partnership.
Modern equipment can do a remarkable job in separating out two-dimensional materials (such as paper) from three dimensional materials (such as containers), and optical sorting technology can separate out different types of plastics by color and/or resin type. Unfortunately, we do not have a facility in our metro region that has this equipment.
Until recently, we have been able to pass the problem of contamination onto overseas markets which had the wherewithal to sort out the problem.
International markets have been key to the recycling industry almost since its inception. As China was emerging as the largest manufacturing nation, ports and piers were improving the export infrastructure. China also had another advantage over the local markets - facilities there had the ability to accept materials with contamination. China was able to take dirtier loads because low-cost labor and high tech equipment could sort out what our local facilities could not.
But even with these two important advantages that the Chinese market enjoyed, the levels of contamination in much of the curbside-collected recyclable materials coming out of the country and Europe proved to be too much. Meanwhile, Chinese wages have increased and consumers there are beginning to create an increased level of their own discards, making them less and less dependent on the U.S. and Europe for material.
Simply put, the Chinese industry does not want our trash anymore.
The country began a series of customs enforcement in 2013 and 2017 called Green Fence and Green Sword aimed to stop unwanted materials from entering their ports.
Recycling markets consultant Patty Moore, told Resource Recycling Magazine in May, “I’m really, really concerned about the impact this is going to have on recycling in [the U.S.], because we’ve gotten so used to being able to move that material to export. [The US sorting facilities] are unequipped to provide the high grade of paper that China is now demanding.”
If the community wants to continue to recycle, it will be important to properly support the infrastructure so that materials can be sorted, ensure that the ‘yes’ list only includes items that can be recycled and encourage people to properly recycle. Residents want everything to be recyclable without understanding the problems with wishful recycling.
Three actions we can do to help sustain the recycling industry
We do have the power to make a difference even on these global issues.
- Use the list: Look on the container, contact your garbage and recycling company or ask your local jurisdiction for the official list of what goes in each cart - and what stays out. When in doubt, throw it out! (or call Metro 503-234-3000.)
- Redeem your bottle: Did you know that many of the bottles returned through the Oregon Bottle Bill get recycled right here in our state? Keep it local by redeeming your bottles and cans directly -and you now get a dime!
- Share your opinion: A formal public comment period is open through July 14, 2017 on proposed amendments to Metro code and associated administrative rules relating to licensing and inspection requirements for material recovery facilities that process source-separated recyclables.
Thank you, Master Recyclers, for doing your part in helping residents understand how to recycle right!