Oregonians have sent 23 million pounds of recyclables to landfills in the months since China began turning them away.
Salem’s Garten Services is among those that have dumped the most, throwing away 2.6 million pounds of mixed paper and certain plastics collected in Marion County residents’ big blue bins.
On Jan. 1, China stopped allowing many materials to be imported for recycling, saying contamination levels were too high. China was the world’s largest importer of recycled paper and plastic, and took most of Oregon’s recycling.
About half of Marion County’s recycling goes to Salem’s Garten Services, with the rest going to Pioneer Recycling Services in Portland.
Representatives of both companies participated in a recent stakeholder meeting, led by the state Department of Environmental Quality, aiming to figure out how to deal with the new restrictions.
It’s against Oregon law for garbage haulers to dump recyclables in landfills. DEQ has given 26 companies special permission do so for the time being.
But that can’t continue forever, Peter Spendelow, a DEQ natural resource specialist, said.
While most Portland-area and Salem recyclers used the exception for a one-time dump to clear a backlog of materials that had accumulated in their warehouses, others are taking recycling directly from the blue bin to the landfill, Spendelow said.
At the meeting, DEQ officials urged haulers to think about not taking recyclable material that is being dumped, or possibly eliminating recycling altogether.
“On the long term, does it make sense to keep collecting material if you’re just going to keep disposing of it?” Spendelow asked.
But haulers and processors said that would mean consumers would need bigger bins for garbage, and would get out of the habit of recycling. If markets improved, the bins would need to be switched again, and consumers would need to be retrained in proper recycling.
“I’m very optimistic the pricing’s going to come back,” said Dave Claugus, of Pioneer Recycling Services. “It just takes awhile.”
In Salem and Marion County, recycling has been scaled way back. Beginning in March, shredded paper, egg cartons, milk boxes and most plastic containers were banned from blue bins.
The changes angered and confused many residents, spurring a major education campaign by Garten Services, Marion County and haulers.
Following the campaign, Garten saw a slight decline in the amount of banned items it was receiving, spokeswoman Gaelen McAllister said.
But since then, levels have returned to where they previously were, she said. Recycling coming from Salem is particularly contaminated.
“There are always piles and piles of trash that we’ve pulled out of the recycling,” McAllister said. “It takes a lot of education to get people to change behavior.”
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