A Chinese ban on plastics recyclables, along with bottlenecks in the supply chain for plastics and other recyclables, have led to a nationwide crisis in recycling that’s about to reach your local landfill and garbage hauling service.
Effective June 1, recycling company Sunrise Enterprises will suspend all recycling of plastic and paper in the county. And the county landfill and transfer stations will stop taking plastic, along with newspaper, paper, glass and cardboard on that date.
The landfill will continue to accept yard and wood debris for composting and the Roseburg Transfer Station will continue to accept tin, aluminum, batteries, oil and appliances.
Soda bottles and other items covered by the Oregon bottle bill can still be turned in at local grocery stores and at the Bottle Drop redemption center in Roseburg.
Sunrise Enterprises CEO Shane Kalar said this isn’t just a local problem, and the issue is much bigger than a decision by the Douglas County commissioners.
China is the biggest importer of plastic recyclables in the world. Ultimately, that’s where most of the plastic turned in by Douglas County residents has been sent, after first being shipped to processors in Portland and Washington that sort all the recycling material.
China has given up on taking plastic recyclables, primarily because Americans have been sending them what they call “dirty” plastic.
The root of the problem is that Americans have been contaminating their recyclables by turning in types of plastic China hasn’t been accepting for a long time, mixed in with the few types of plastics they do accept, Kalar explained. Sunrise had asked customers back in 2013 to stop turning in plastics labeled any number other than 1 or 2, because they couldn’t sell the rest anymore.
Here and other places around the country, people kept on turning in the wrong plastics, though, and that’s what makes the recyclables “dirty,” Kalar said.
He calls that “hopeful recycling.”
“They don’t know what symbol it is, but it’s plastic and so they put it in there, hoping that it’s recyclable. That is actually the contaminants that really do the damage,” he said.
The county faces similar problems to the plastic issue with other types of recyclables. People who turn in cans with food left inside or collected into plastic bags have contaminated the supply, and glass recycling is plagued by an oversupply that means counties have had to pay recycling companies to take them and in many cases cannot find a company to take them at all.
The Douglas County Public Works Department Thursday afternoon issued a press release asking county residents to dispose of recyclables at the landfill and transfer stations as refuse, along with other household waste. But they said they encourage citizens to continue separating recycling from garbage, in hopes this will be a temporary situation. They are urging residents to check with their local waste disposal company to find out what changes they plan to make for handling recyclables.
County Commissioner Chris Boice said the county is continuing to seek a solution to the problem.
“We’re very disappointed about the fact that this is happening. It’s outside of our control and we’re working diligently to try to figure out ways to continue recycling products because we understand the importance of it,” Boice said.
Sunrise will not be closing its doors and none of its employees will lose their jobs, Kalar said Friday morning.
“I think the impact of what the public sees us doing is obviously pretty large, but we actually will still remain an employer of about 220 people and continue our other operations,” Kalar said.
The company will continue to take used household items like clothing, shoes, toys, electronics and pots and pans. Those can be dropped off at any Sunrise location. If they can’t resell them locally, they have buyers who will take them and recycle them.
“Even something like a single shoe (because) the dog ate the other one, believe it or not, there’s somewhere to send that and it won’t wind up in our landfill,” he said.
Kalar said he does not think this will be a short-term problem. It will take awhile before there is a solution to the recycling crisis. When a market does return for those items, it’s likely recyclables being turned in will be much more strictly monitored.
Oregon law requires that separated recyclables be reused or recycled. Local governments, collectors and industry representatives are working with the Department of Environmental Quality to obtain the necessary permits to dispose of recycled items in the landfill, the county’s press release said.
The DEQ acknowledged the scope of the problem caused by the ban, and says on its website that for now, “landfilling these materials on a temporary basis is an unfortunate but needed option.”
Donations of recyclables have continued to pour in as Oregonians’ commitment to recycling remained strong, according to the DEQ. The agency’s website said the state is following the ban closely and continues to seek solutions to the problem.
“Maintaining and protecting the environment are part of Oregon’s identity, and DEQ is committed to protecting the integrity of Oregon’s reuse and recycling systems. During this uncertainty, the state will experience short-term challenges, and DEQ will continue to encourage recycling as much as possible,” it said.