Part 1: Recycling crisis hits home

Medford, Ore. – Starting January 1st of next year, China plans to ban the import of 24 varieties of solid waste and recyclables. That includes mixed waste paper and specific types of plastic.

“That would be your yogurt tubs, your butter tubs… possibly shampoo bottles,” said Garry Penning with Rogue Disposal and Recycling.

It’s a change causing concern and chaos around the globe. Penning explained, “It’s not just Southern Oregon. It’s Oregon, it’s the west coast, it’s all the United States. In fact, it’s a global issue”

Penning said the ban is due to the contamination of non-recyclable materials in co-mingled recycling. “We’re getting electronics in the curbside program, we’re getting garbage in the program.”

Brian Fuller with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality said china is focusing on cleaning up its environment. The mills that previously took in contaminated materials are being shut down. That means the United States and anyone else who exports recyclable materials to China will need to meet new quality standards. Fuller said, “Their level will be 0.3%, and currently we’re at about 3% contamination”

In order to reduce contamination, processing facilities have to slow down production and remove items that aren’t considered recyclable. That’s causing material to back up into the system, and costs are increasing.

Gary Blake is the general manager for Recology Ashland. He said, “We’ve already seen a negative economic hit.” Two years ago, his franchise would receive $10 to $15 per ton of recyclable material. Now, it costs $45 a ton for the processing facilities to even take the material.

Blake said, “We’ve got more recycling chasing fewer markets, and the price is dropping very quickly.” That leaves local recycling leaders with two options: raise your prices or plastic and mixed waste paper becomes trash.”

Penning said increasing rates still wouldn’t guarantee China accepting the materials. So that means, “Our only other option at that point would be to dispose of that material short term in the landfill.”

The DEQ said it’s against state law to landfill recyclable material, but now it’s more expensive to recycle than to landfill the material. Fuller said, “That’s the first time we’ve had that happen in decades, if ever.”

Penning, Blake and other recycling leaders have been meeting with city councilors and county commissioners to make sure everyone is onboard.

“They have just informed us, explained their dilemma,” said Jackson County Commissioner Colleen Roberts. According to her, the county is leaving it up to the experts and trusting the recycling companies to make the best decision for consumers. “We were supportive of their plan to put it in the landfill at this point”

Local recycling leaders say it’s not ideal, but a temporary fix until a long-term solution is found. Blake said, “My hope is that we find a good option to continue recycling and that this crisis can somehow be negotiated or alleviated somewhat so that we can all resume recycling more cost effectively in the future”

Tune in Friday night to NBC5 News at 6 for part two of this story. We’ll look at the environmental impact of these new regulations. We’ll also explain potential solutions local recycling leaders are considering and what you can do to help.

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