China causing Oregon DEQ to consider unprecedented recycling disposal waivers
- The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has received at least 15 requests for guidance or concurrence to dispose of recyclable materials related to the market effects of China's new scrap import policies. "No one in our recycling system wants this to happen, and everyone is working together to make this as short term as possible," wrote Julie Miller, a DEQ communications specialist, via email. "This will be the first time in Oregon’s decades of strong recycling programs where this may occur on a large scale."
- The DEQ is engaged in ongoing stakeholder meetings and has been offering guidance on its website for industry and local governments throughout the state. Temporary disposal waivers will only be granted "when all options to find markets for recyclable commodities have been exhausted."
- Certain plastics have already been cut from a few local programs and, according to a recent interview on Jefferson Public Radio, Rogue Disposal & Recycling may soon cut glass collection to reduce contamination. Though as noted by Laura Leebrick, Rogue's community and governmental affairs manager, these changes won't be easy. "How do we take this really robust recycling collection system [and move to a system] our customers are going to find really confusing?" she asked.
The U.S., and many other countries around the world, are still in the process of understanding the full scope of China's new import policies months after they were announced. While some in the industry still hold out hope that this will be a short-term disruption, it has already had an effect on both the stock and commodity markets. Now, as many had feared, it is beginning to affect local programs. Because of Oregon's proximity to and seeming dependence on Chinese markets, the state's recycling industry has been among the hardest hit so far.
Smaller municipalities around the state have already been told by service providers that markets have dried up for certain materials. During the radio interview, Rogue representatives said they have accumulated so much material that bales are now being stored outside their transfer station. The hope is that a market of some kind can be found. The fear is that the material will become worthless if left out for too long and eventually end up in a local landfill. All involved describe that as the last resort, though for smaller municipalities with less leverage or resources, that could soon become a reality. Larger local governments, especially in cities such as Portland and Eugene, are expected to hold off on disposal as long as possible. Though even Metro, Portland's regional government, has recognized this as a possibility.
The fact that this is happening in Oregon first, a state known for its deep recycling culture, brings the consumer angle into hard focus. Some have portrayed it as a cautionary tale for the type of contamination that can be caused by overeager or wishful recycling. This makes the need for new educational tactics even more pressing, with China set to tighten specifications on bale quality. Contamination is an area where other states and organizations have found success, giving hope that Oregon can do the same. What may be harder to address, and could have longer-lasting consequences, is the lack of consumer confidence in recycling when residents are told many of their common items no longer have value. That is a challenge with no easy answer, and one that the industry may soon have to address far beyond this one state.
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