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Carisa Cegavske

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December 14, 2013
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Douglas County recyclers bend to China's plastic policy

Eighty tons of plastics are stacked up outside the Sunrise Enterprises recycling plant in Green.

They were once shampoo bottles, deli packaging, grocery bags and other plastic products. They were cleaned and sorted, pressed at 3,000 pounds per square inch into half-ton bales and stacked, ready to ship.

They may be there a long time.

Sunrise Chief Operations Officer Don Wright said he has no place to sell the plastic. Sunrise used to export them to China, until recently the largest importer of American plastics.

The Chinese government instituted “Operation Green Fence” about a year ago to bar most types of plastics from being imported into the country.

Before the ban, Chinese recyclers broke the plastics down and resold the material for manufacturing everything from flooring to trash cans to battery cables. The recyclers sent what they could not use to landfills and dirtied the air while melting down what they could use.

The ripple effect of the ban has now reached Douglas County, where Sunrise is stuck with bales of plastics 3 through 7, which are harder to break down than plastics 1 and 2.

Plastics 3 to 7 taken to any of the county’s 11 transfer stations or to Sunrise after Jan. 1 will be diverted to the landfill.

Sunrise will continue to recycle some of the most used plastics, including soft drink and water bottles and milk jugs. Detergent, bleach and coffee containers will also be accepted. All of these are marked 1 or 2.

Some items like “clamshells” — plastic containers often used at delis — are occasionally ones but usually threes or sixes. They will be sorted by sight and sent to the landfill after Jan. 1. So will pill bottles, yogurt containers and plastic cups.

Plastic shopping bags will no longer be accepted either. Douglas County Solid Waste Manager Joe Powell said they often become litter.

“You get a puff of wind, and it will take them off like a party balloon,” Powell said.

Wright suggested grocery shoppers ask for paper bags, which are recyclable.

Powell said an even better choice is to bring a reusable bag from home.

At Douglas County’s current rate of disposal, the county landfill is expected to last until 2025, Powell said. The more junk goes in, though, the shorter its life.

The problem with plastics is they are built to last.

“In a landfill, you would like things to decompose and go away,” Powell said. “Plastics typically don’t decompose.”

Wright and Powell assert the real solution is to avoid using plastic in the first place.

The plastics which will be rejected after Jan. 1 account for a small portion of the material — including paper, glass and clothes — Sunrise recycles.

Still, about 36 tons of previously recycled plastic will be sent to the landfill next year. That’s less than 1 percent of what Douglas County recycled last year.

Last year, residents recycled 50,320 tons of material, or 930 pounds per person. Some 72,583 tons of waste, or 1,342 pounds per person, went into the landfill.

“For a program that is not mandatory, the public’s acceptance of recycling here is pretty extraordinary,” Wright said.

Still, Sunrise is left with those bales of plastics. Wright said they plan to “sit on it until we find a market.”

“It is not our intent to take 80 tons of recyclable plastics and dump it in the landfill,” he said.

Sunrise officials and county government remain cautiously optimistic that plastics 3 through 7 will sell in the future.

“This is not permanent. We just don’t know when and if that green fence is going to be lifted or someone in the local market, statewide, is going to buy it,” Powell said.

• You can reach reporter Carisa Cegavske at 541-957-4213 or ccegavske@nrtoday.com.

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The News-Review Updated Dec 14, 2013 11:48PM Published Dec 17, 2013 09:34AM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.