What we know
Oregon is feeling the effects, and feeling them hard. Senator Ron Wyden even co-signed a letter to the Chinese ambassador requesting more dialogue in January.
Recyclers throughout the state have experienced challenges finding markets for material, with China effectively shut off as an option at the moment, and some have had to request disposal permission. As of April 10, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) had granted 21 disposal concurrences. DEQ emphasizes that these requests are only granted after "all other options are exhausted" and accounted for a very small percentage of recyclable material in the state. An estimated 8,305 tons has been disposed as of Feb. 28.
DEQ's broader priority is to move toward a sustainable materials management system, though that doesn't help solve near-term challenges. To address the current crisis, DEQ has created communication material to share with all interested parties and is hosting regular stakeholder meetings on the topic.
As this plays out, each of the state's major MRFs has experienced its share of trouble with contamination and stockpiling. In January, the Oregon Refuse & Recycling Association released a draft list of suggested materials for municipalities to include in single-stream programs based on feedback from processors. The hope is that this will help local officials have a unified message on education. Essentially it includes paper, cans and plastic bottles. Mixed plastics, aseptic containers and plastic bags are seen as particularly disruptive. A growing number of companies have adopted this list though some are still adapting.
Rogue Disposal - which services numerous western communities such as Medford, Jackson County, Central Point, Jacksonville and Phoenix - is sending the majority of its material to landfills at the moment, as reported by the Mail Tribune. The company is currently running test loads to see whether residents have responded to these new guidelines and if contamination has gone down accordingly. In that same article, the DEQ identified western Oregon as one of the hardest hit areas.
The cities of Ashland and Talent aren't seeing any changes because Recology takes their material to California. The company has identified new markets domestically, as well as in India, Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. Though one issue has been people trying to bring recyclables into these two municipalities and the company said it could begin asking for proof of residence soon.
Material lists have also been limited in Marion and Jackson counties. As of mid-April, KGW8 reported that this information still hadn't been widely publicized by companies and residents were unaware of the change. Recent stories indicate changes are also underway in Lincoln and Douglas counties. Milton-Freewater's curbside program has been canceled due to market pressures and other factors. Eugene and Springfield recently adjusted to the more limited material list.
Rate increases have also become common in various parts of the state. Portland - which so far hasn't made any changes to its program - could soon approve a $3 per month increase for households effective May 1, as reported by OPB. Increases have already been approved in Gresham, Klamath County for Waste Management, and the Albany area for Republic Services. Other companies are expected to seek similar increases if they haven't already.
Looking toward the future, Portland recently hosted the National Recycling Coalition's first market development workshop. As reported by the Portland Tribune, attendees said new markets for plastic had begun to open up in Southeast Asia and regional infrastructure investment was possible. That could include Chinese investment in mixed plastics processing capability, the reopening of a former paper mill or other approaches.