Ashland residents will soon have to pay more for the city to keep recycling their plastic and paper waste as the global recycling crisis continues to adapt to China’s evolving policy.
The Ashland City Council voted Tuesday to move towards increasing the rate paid for recycling to ensure recyclables don’t end up in landfills.
The temporary surcharge, estimated to range between $2.50 to $3 per month, will help continue getting paper and most plastics end up being recycled, and also to buy officials time to seek alternative options in the long run.
City staff also presented the choice to start landfilling the recyclable materials at Dry Creek Landfill for the next six months, which would cost the city less — a cheaper choice offered by Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. The council turned it down, saying that should be the last resort.
“It’s clear that this will push us going forward,” Councilor Dennis Slattery said at the meeting. “I want to make it clear that this is not going to a for-profit (for Recology). It’s going to be at-cost.”
The disposal industry is facing a global crisis as China, the world’s largest importer of recyclable materials, announced earlier this year its latest plan to crack down on importing materials intended for recycling but a portion of which ends up in its own landfills, Recology Ashland General Manager Gary Blake said at the meeting.
Recology Ashland collects solid waste for the city of Ashland, then ships it to Rogue Materials Recovery, an aggregator in Medford, where the material is baled and transported to Portland to be sorted and shipped to China.
Now that China has shut its door, sorting facilities are slowing down their operation and running the same materials through the sorting line twice in an attempt to meet tightened Chinese standards restricting the amount of contamination mixed into what it receives, “cutting the sorting capacity in half overnight,” Blake said. The commodity pricing has plummeted for several years, but “nothing like we’ve seen in the last 30 days,” he added.
Waste collectors, who used to make $40 to $50 per ton of recycling materials, now have to pay around $80 per ton because of the market, Blake said. Moreover, in an October notice to Ashland, Rogue Materials Recovery said there’s no guarantee the materials shipped to them will be recycled, regardless of increasing costs in the foreseeable future.
“This is moving faster than the industry could quite frankly respond to,” Blake said. “There’s a huge amount of concern of what’s going to happen when these standards got implemented.”
Southern Oregon and the U.S. should brace for lasting changes with this wave of crackdown from China, Blake said.
“(The Chinese government has) increased inspection because they do have standards — standards that I’d venture to say that have been largely ignored or overlooked,” Blake said, referring to the “Green Fence Operation” started in 2013. “They’re really trying to clean up their domestic industry, and because we’re exporting to that industry, we’re caught up in that.”
In October, DEQ decided to bend state law to allow haulers and collectors to landfill their recycling materials the next six months with the cost of $42 per ton. Companies will have to keep track of its disposal and report appropriately to DEQ.
Councilor Stefani Seffinger asked at the meeting whether outlawing plastic bags and implementing surcharges on stores using plastic bags would help the problem.
With many unknown elements lying aheads, Blake encouraged the council to take one step at the time until the city understand the full scale of the problem.
“I told (city staff) that ‘let’s not make any wholesale changes in our recycling system until we understand where this is going,’” he said. “We have to see what’s going to happen a few months down the road.”
He suggested the DEQ might redo the recycle list to define what’s eligible for recycling in the near future.
“This is not a fun thing we have to deal with, but we have the perfect working relationship with Recology,” Councilor Rich Rosenthal said. “But we might want to think about ways to reduce the things that might end up having be baled somewhere or to take a look at a revenue mechanism to generate offset to help the costs of the surcharge.”
Seffinger said the service is vital to the community and suggested the City Council start looking for ways to get the community to reduce the use of plastic.
Blake said for a short-term solution, Recology will start shipping its material to a facility in Northern California which will export them to new markets.
“It has been explained to me that Recology started diverting from China about six months ago,” Blake said. “They are not worried in terms of getting access to new markets.”
He also mentioned the possibility of rekindling domestic production, allowing mills that shut down years ago to now utilize recycling materials. Recology is also looking into new technology that would help process these material, he said.
“I’m optimistic about the long term, and we could turn around and look at this several years from now and go, ‘Maybe that’s the best thing that happened to the industry’,” Blake said. “But it’ll be tough in the short run until we can figure out what those infrastructure opportunities are.”
— Reach Ashland Daily Tidings Tran Nguyen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4485. Follow her on Twitter @nguyenntrann.