Clark’s Transfer in John Day will no longer accept plastic for recycling. But this is not a local problem — it’s global in scope.
China announced last year that it no longer wanted to be the “world’s garbage dump,” and a ban on importing 24 kinds of solid waste went into effect Jan. 1. China had been processing nearly half the world’s exports of waste paper, metals and used plastic — about 7.3 million tons in 2016. The ban includes the low-grade polyethylene terephthalate used to make plastic bottles.
Waste brokers have informed Clark’s Transfer of the change. Manager Farrell Clark said Western Recycling in Boise has “flat out refused” to buy mixed plastic, and Far West Fibers in Portland wants more money for mixed plastic than it would cost to put the material in a landfill.
“And there would be no guarantee the plastic would be recycled,” Clark said.
Clark’s Transfer operates under a state solid waste permit held by Grant County, Clark said, and the company is not required to recycle plastic. The company recycles lead-acid batteries, scrap iron, used motor oil and cardboard with mixed paper, he said.
When Chinese officials notified the World Trade Organization of its proposed ban in July 2017, they cited the need to protect China’s environment and improve public health. They also complained that much of the recyclable material it received from other countries was not properly cleaned or was mixed with nonrecyclable materials.
Concerns about plastic pollution around the world have increased in recent years. An estimated 8 million tons of waste plastic ends up in the oceans every year, according to a 2015 report by Jenna Jambeck in Science, but the majority of plastic in everyday use is not biodegradable.
Plastic recycling has taken place since the 1970s and has become an efficient closed-loop system, but compared to metal and glass, plastic recycling is more difficult because of its low density, low value and technical hurdles.
Mixing different kinds of plastics — such as polypropylene with polyethylene, the most widely manufactured plastics — is like mixing oil and water. The common use of dyes, fillers and other additives also makes plastic recycling more difficult.
Steve Frank, president of Pioneer Recycling in Clackamas, said he was trying to line up companies in Indonesia, India, Vietnam or Malaysia to handle their materials, but those countries cannot make up the difference.
“The U.S. exports 1 1/2 million tons of paper and plastic per month, and 1 million went to China,” he said.
The No. 1 thing that American consumers can do is improve the quality of recycling in order to meet China’s higher standards.
“They need to adhere to the recycling program’s standards — the instructions you see on the blue bin,” Frank said.
Food containers need to be rinsed thoroughly, pop and juice bottles need to be rinsed and the lids thrown away and square milk cartons need to be thrown away. Plastic grocery bags get entangled in sorting equipment and should be thrown away. Used clothing, containers with medical residue and especially soiled disposable diapers should all be thrown away.
“If in doubt, throw it out,” Frank said.
Frank said a new materials recovery facility like he runs can cost $20 million – “and that’s just for the equipment.” For right now, his company is “slowing down, hiring more sorters and getting the message out through talks and interviews.” European Union officials meanwhile are considering a tax on plastic bags and packaging.
“We don’t know when the situation will change for the better,” Clark said.