Contaminants taint recycling hopes: County sees changes — but residents should keep recycling, for now

CUSTOMERS should make sure all comingled recyclables put out curbside are clean — free of trash and food debris.

Photo by Trisha Walker
CUSTOMERS should make sure all comingled recyclables put out curbside are clean — free of trash and food debris.

Gorge waste managers Hood River Garbage/The Dalles Disposal and Tri-County Hazardous Waste and Recycling Program are still coming to terms with how a Jan. 1 recycling policy change is affecting local programs.

China announced last year that it would no longer allow imports of post-consumer plastics and unsorted paper in response to poor quality materials shipped from the United States and Europe, pollution issues and its desire to develop its own recyclable recovery system, as the Hood River News reported in October.

As a result, any comingled recycling sent to China cannot contain more than .5 percent contaminants. If one shipping container is found to exceed the accepted allotment of contaminants in just one of its bales, all of the containers are rejected.

Hood River Garbage is working with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and weekly meetings address the changes. But so far, nothing concrete has been decided.

“The Chinese market hasn’t opened up for any imports,” said Jim Winterbottom, district manager of The Dalles Disposal/Hood River Garbage. “We’re getting close to the .5 percent contamination — we meaning west coast recovery facilities — but it’s still being rejected. We’ve gone from 20 percent contamination to a thousand-pound bail to .65, and it’s still not good enough.”

Material recovery facilities — MRFs — in Portland and Vancouver, to whom Hood River County sends its recyclables, are slowing down sorting conveyors in an effort to weed out more contaminants. This has caused a backlog of materials and reduced demand from the MRFs for materials.

Because there isn’t a market for these materials, comingled recyclables in Hood River County are currently being landfilled, Winterbottom said. Source separated materials, such as cardboard, steel, concrete and yard debris brought directly to the transfer station are being recycled.

But people shouldn’t start tossing everything into the trash just yet.

“We need everyone to continue on with current practices until they’re given information on how the program is going to change,” Winterbottom said. “We need to wait for processors to find markets for materials.”

He believes the list of recyclable materials will eventually be pared down to basics — tin, paper, corrugated cardboard, and plastics such as milk jugs.

“I don’t think that’s going to be what people want,” he said. “(But) the rose-colored lenses are off my safety goggles. It’s going back to basics. Just because you want to recycle it doesn’t mean it can be recycled.”

What would help is making sure all comingled recyclables put out curbside are clean — free of trash and food debris.

“Even when we get a more defined list of materials (that can be recycled), it’s imperative that they’re prepared correctly,” Winterbottom said. “A gallon milk container that has three ounces of milk in it is not recyclable. People have got to start understanding we’re going to have to start leaving materials, and leaving information behind if it’s not in the program or not prepared correctly.”

But again, no policy changes have been put in place. As soon as that happens, Tri-County and Hood River Garbage will begin outreach and the distribution of educational materials, Winterbottom said.

“The genie’s been let out of the bottle, and now we’re going to have to put it in the bottle. And that’s a very difficult task,” he said.

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