Beginning in 2013, the Chinese government stepped in to reduce the amount of garbage in the materials being imported through its “Green Fence” policy. In 2017, China enacted “National Sword 2017,” which imposed severe restrictions on the import of recyclable materials. In 2018, China took this a step further and enacted a ban on post-consumer plastics and unsorted paper, and established a strict contamination standard of 0.5 percent. Among China’s reasons for the ban are poor quality of materials received; pollution caused by poor recycling practices; protection of human health and safety; and the need for China to develop its own domestic recovery system for recyclable materials.
Prior to the ban, China had been the world’s largest importer of recycled paper and plastics – including most of Oregon’s mixed paper and plastics. This global ban has disrupted recycling worldwide, with Oregon facing significant disruptions due to its reliance on Chinese markets. In the past, Chinese buyers have purchased materials with high levels of contamination (materials other than the commodities being sold) and at higher prices than U.S. domestic markets. In Oregon, materials collected for recycling have approximately 8-13 percent contamination, and reaching the new 0.5 percent contamination standard is nearly impossible. This has, and continues, to cause major disruptions through the state’s recycling programs, and DEQ and partners are working to address this these problems both for the short term and long term.
This ban is creating a major disruption in recycling, and currently there is no excess capacity in the recycling markets that can absorb the materials that China is banning and that are too dirty to export. Material recovery facilities are slowing down their sort lines in an effort to remove more contaminants to meet China’s new, higher standards. This has resulted in materials backing up through the supply chain. And due to Oregon’s strong recycling ethic, the flow of incoming material is not slowing down. DEQ, working closely with representatives from the recycling industry and local governments, has initiated a short-term stopgap solution to help facilitate the flow of materials throughout the collection and processing system. When all options to find markets for recyclable commodities have been exhausted, DEQ concurs that landfilling these materials on a temporary basis is an unfortunate but needed option at this time.
Given the high degree of uncertainty concerning the ban, it’s hard to predict the full scope of impacts across Oregon. The circumstances could require significant changes over the long term. In the meantime, however, DEQ and its partners are developing strategies to improve domestic recycling systems and markets, and looking to find ways to reduce contamination – both at the curbside and in processing facilities.
In recent years, much recyclable material produced on the West Coast has been marketed to China for a number of reasons, including cheap shipping costs; lower labor costs in China to sort contaminated materials; China’s burgeoning need for recycled material to serve as feedstock for manufacturing and a loss of domestic markets.
As a result, Chinese purchasers were paying high prices and accepting more contaminated material than U.S. purchasers would accept. Until recently, Oregon was a major importer of old newsprint and other papers to be recycled feedstock for two large newspaper mills in Newberg and Oregon City. When most curbside programs moved to roll carts and introduced commingling - the mixing of all paper, plastic and metal together in a single large roll cart - contamination increased. Oregon’s processors were able to clean up the material to be used in the local paper mills. The closure of both of these mills by 2015 left Oregon without a local mill that could use the broad range of papers these mills had used, and Chinese buyers were more than willing to purchase our paper at good prices despite the contamination levels.
Recycling contaminants are any items that are not accepted for recycling in a particular recycling program or don’t belong in materials being recycled. Contaminants include both non-recyclable items and recyclable items that are dirty or unsuitable for a particular recycling stream. Common contaminants that cause problems in Oregon’s curbside recycling programs include plastic bags, film plastics, liquids, food, soiled packaging, plastic clamshells, garden hoses, wire hangers, textiles, diapers, electronics and batteries. Some of these materials can be recycled separately, but they cause significant problems when mixed with other recyclables in recycling carts.
Contaminants cause problems all along the recycling journey. Food, liquids, oil or hazardous chemicals can contaminate paper and other materials in recycling bins making whole batches of materials compressed in recycling trucks unusable. Once recyclables arrive at a material recovery facility, trained sorters hand-pick contaminants out of piles of recyclables, but a lot of them slip through, such as clamshells, plastic bags, food soiled items and other unwanted items. Materials like plastic bags, plastic film and garden hoses can also jam and damage the mechanical equipment that separates different types of recyclables and packages them in bales. Contaminants also create health and safety hazards for people working in these facilities.
Once the material is processed and packaged into bales of recyclable commodities, they are shipped to specialized recycling facilities or manufacturers who use them to make new products. Contamination in bales diminishes their value and marketability, and if there is too much contamination, companies won’t use these materials as feedstocks for their manufacturing process.
In short, contamination makes recycling more expensive and can turn valuable resources to trash. You can learn more about how to reduce contamination in the “How to Help” section.
Oregon laws require that source-separated recyclables be reused or recycled to help ensure that we gain the resource conservation and other environmental benefits of reused and recycled materials. These requirements promote and support the necessary infrastructure for the collection, processing, marketing, and end use of recyclables; instill confidence in reuse and recycling systems; and encourage people to reuse and recycle. However, considering the unprecedented challenges China’s actions have caused, processors may not be able to find alternative markets for some of the mixed paper or plastics being collected for recycling. In such circumstances, DEQ may concur that landfilling these materials on a temporary basis is an unfortunate but needed option at this time on the issue. This will be the first time in Oregon’s decades of strong recycling programs where this may occur on a large scale.
Oregon residents are encouraged to continue to recycle whenever possible. Your city, county or recycling service provider will inform you of any changes in your curbside collection service. To find out if a local recycling depot has been affected by this market disruption, contact the facility or your city, county or local recycling collection service provider to see if certain recycling items are being accepted.
In the greater Portland area (Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties), you can visit the Metro website
or call the Metro Recycling Information hotline at 503-234-3000. Your local government or recycling collection service provider should also have suggestions on how to properly clean, sort and recycle used and unwanted materials to help reduce contamination from the start.
To prepare for different possibilities and to develop strategies to maintain recycling collection and processing where possible, DEQ is working with recycling processors, collectors, exporters, end users, and local government recycling specialists to identify both short and long-term challenges and solutions. DEQ has already convened several stakeholder meetings and will continue to lead efforts to facilitate dialog and find solutions.
DEQ encourages Oregonians to:
Continue to recycle whenever possible. Your city, county or recycling service provider will inform you of any changes in your curbside collection service. To find out if a local recycling depot is affected by this market disruption, contact the facility or your city, county or local recycling collection service provider.
Recycle it right. Make sure that the items you set out for recycling are collected or accepted by your recycling service provider. If in doubt, find out. Non-recyclable items lead to more contamination, which means slower sorting lines and fewer markets for these commodities.
Prevent waste from the start. Recycling is not the only action you can take. You can conserve more energy and natural resources by not buying items in the first place.
To learn more about these important topics and find out how DEQ is working to address these larger challenges, we encourage you to read the Materials Management’s 2050 Vision and Framework for Action