HERMISTON — Your most recently discarded shampoo bottle may technically be able to be recycled, but it’s not going to be.
Pop bottles and other drink containers you can redeem for a 10-cent deposit in Oregon are still being recycled by the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative at a facility in St. Helens that handles high-quality #1 plastics. And some transfer stations, such as Sanitary Disposal in Hermiston and Pendleton Sanitary Service, are currently taking milk jugs.
“All other plastics are just landfilled,” Sanitary Disposal president Mike Jewett said. “DEQ said get rid of them.”
It wasn’t always this way. For decades, Americans tossed everything from laundry detergent bottles to butter tubs into curbside bins, assuring themselves that the items would be reshaped into a new container and land back on the shelves at Walmart shortly.
Those low-quality plastics are expensive and difficult to recycle, however, and break down over multiple rounds of recycling. Companies in the United States couldn’t make recycling such products pencil out financially, and so they shipped most of that plastic to China.
That’s not all they were shipping to China. Careless Americans were increasingly throwing jars half-full of peanut butter, syringes and Styrofoam containers into the mix, increasing labor costs and decreasing profits as workers had to separate out the waste that made up as much as 20% of the load the company had paid for.
And so, in July 2017, China announced it would no longer be allowing imports of most plastic waste, and transfer stations suddenly found themselves with nowhere to sell their plastic for recycling.
Some, like Milton-Freewater’s recycling contractor Horizon Project, quickly announced they would stop taking plastic. Others, like transfer stations in The Dalles and Hood River, kept collecting curbside recycling to keep people in the habit but then took out the plastic and sent it to landfills or incinerators.
At Sanitary Disposal, Jewett told the East Oregonian in November 2017 that they were still stockpiling plastic on site, hoping to ride out the sudden glut in the very small domestic market.
Two years later, a new home for most of that plastic has never materialized, domestically or in other countries.
Now, Jewett said, a similar problem is forming with cardboard. He said China was taking 20 million tons of cardboard a few years ago, then five million, and now two. The county expects to not accept any by 2021.
“That market has really gone sour,” Jewett said.
Sanitary Disposal is stockpiling cardboard like it once stockpiled plastic, hoping the market will rebound in the spring after going “as low as it’s ever been.”
Jewett said the transfer station is still recycling other materials, such as wood, metals and glass. Right now it’s costing them more to ship the glass to Portland than they’re getting paid for it, he said, but “we don’t want to break any habits.”
“Our recycling income is a lot lower than it has been in the past,” he said.
A report on recycling released this week by the environmental advocacy organization Environment Oregon stated that Oregonians are producing more waste than ever while recycling less of it.
“The reality is plastics are so hard to recycle and so low value that we could only consistently afford to collect and recycle it when China was willing to buy it,” Celeste Meiffren-Swango, state director for Environment Oregon Research & Policy Center, said in a statement. “Now we are left to deal with it ourselves, and plastic is choking our recycling system.”
The report points out the problems that come with reduced recycling. Burning more plastic in incinerators damages air quality and presents health hazards. More plastic ends up in the ocean. Landfills can leak toxins into the soil or water supply, and generate greenhouse gases. And finally, when materials are discarded instead of recycled, it creates a need to obtain new “virgin” materials, accelerating our consumption of the Earth’s resources.
In order to address the problem, Environment Oregon suggests a three-pronged approach: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.
Under reduce, they support laws banning or reducing single-use products, such as plastic bags, straws and styrofoam take-out containers. They also support structuring garbage rates based on how much waste a person throws out, encouraging conservation.
Under reuse, they encourage consumers and businesses to trade single-use plastics for products, such as fabric grocery bags or refillable water bottles. They also advocate for “right to repair” laws that allow people and independent shops to fix their own appliances and other products.
Under recycle, they suggest an expansion of curbside recycling and composting programs, as well as laws requiring new products to contain a certain percentage of recycled material. They want to legally hold manufacturers accountable for “the waste their product will become.”
“It’s entirely within our power to fix the system, but what is missing is the necessary sense of urgency,” U.S. PIRG Education Fund Zero Waste Director Alex Truelove, who co-authored the report, said in a news release. “Recycling, composting and waste reduction efforts will need to play an important role in the fight against microplastic pollution, climate change and other environmental challenges.”
From a transfer station’s standpoint, Jewett said individual customers can do their part by being careful to follow rules posted at sites where they get rid of their recycling. The glass drop-offs are only for glass bottles and food containers, for example. If someone throws a window into the dumpster and it breaks, they have now rendered the entire load of glass unfit for recycling, out of concerns about lead contamination.
Contamination by careless recyclers, of course, is what lead to China throwing the recycling market into chaos in the first place.
“Remember: Contamination turns recycling into trash,” Jewett said.