Beginning in 2013, the Chinese government implemented its "Green Fence" policy to reduce the amount of garbage in the materials being imported into the country. 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 disrupted recycling worldwide, and Oregon experienced significant disruptions due to its reliance on Chinese markets. In the past, Chinese buyers 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 China's new 0.5 percent contamination standard was nearly impossible. This caused major disruptions through the state’s recycling programs, and DEQ and partners continue working together to address these problems both for the short term and long term.
The new standard caused a major disruption in recycling, and there was very little excess capacity in the recycling markets that could absorb the materials that China banned and that were too contaminated to export. Material recovery facilities slowed down their sort lines in an effort to remove more contaminants to meet China’s new, higher standards. Materials backed up through the supply chain and due to Oregon’s strong recycling ethic, the flow of incoming material did not slow down. DEQ, working closely with representatives from the recycling industry and local governments, 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 were exhausted, DEQ concurs that landfilling these materials on a temporary basis was an unfortunate but needed option at the time. Now that the most pressing need for disposal has passed, recyclers and recycling collection companies can request a “disposal concurrence” on a case-by-case basis. Learn more here.
DEQ and its partners agreed that the recycling system requires significant changes over the long term. Learn more about the long-term planning process to modernize Oregon’s recycling system.
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 feedstock 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 below.
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.
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. Learn more about the long-term and short-term efforts.
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. Learn more about how to recycle right!
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