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Changes in China punch a hole in regional plastics recycling

Far West Fibers cuts back on what it will take in curbside bins


by: TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT - Far West Fibers recycling of local plastics has hit a snag because of changes in the types of things Chinese companies can take. The changes could force consumers to throw away more plastic containers.A new green initiative in China is forcing Portland-area recycling giant Far West Fibers to rethink the kinds of packaging it will accept at the curbside.

The Chinese effort to curb some types of pollution means Far West Fibers, and other plastic recyclers across the West, are restricting the kinds of containers and items often left curbside by area residents. The decision leaves families and businesses at a loss as to what to do with their noncurbside-recyclable plastics.

Vinod Singh, operations manager for Far West Fibers’ Beaverton plant, says China has increased inspections on imports of recycled material, meaning the country is no longer accepting anything low grade or contaminated.

“Before, we had plastic containers and you could sort what was a bottle, and what wasn’t a bottle — anything from a pen cap to a children’s slide,” Singh says. “That window’s gone now.”

According to Singh, Far West Fibers is having trouble finding a place for all the plastic it still has. That means the company cannot take much of the things consumers have dropped into curbside recycling bins, he says.

“Unfortunately, with some of those things that are difficult to recycle, it’s on the consumer now,” Singh says.

But the market may not be as bad as Far West has made it out to be.

New Seasons Market, which has taken all kinds of plastics from consumers, doesn’t plan to change what its stores accept.

New Seasons’ officials say the stores accept plastic lids, plastic “clamshells” and plastic bags, all things that are not eligible to be put in a curbside bin. The company’s website also provides resources for customers about what can be recycled at the curb.

Jerry Powell, executive editor of Resource Recycling, an online publication focused on the recycling industry, says the change by the Chinese was brought on because many foreign companies were sending garbage — not recycables — to China. Powell says corruption and pollution have become a major issue in China, so Chinese President Xi Jinping issued a letter calling for recyclers to block possible pollutants being shipped into the country.

In the past, many companies have not carefully sorted the recyclable materials shipped to China, so that nation has increased its customs inspections to make sure that companies are not just shipping in garbage.

“Economic growth in China has slowed down,” Powell says. “It’s still strong, but it’s not as robust as before.”

He thinks changes by Far West Fibers and other companies are because shippers and buyers of the plastics are getting nervous. “What you’re seeing is the shock of it,” Powell says. “It’s too bad, but it’s time to change.”

Watching the changes

Plastic is the third most disposed of waste product, after food and wood, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality. Most plastic jugs, jars, plastic tubs and bottles all can be recycled at the curb. Plant or nursery pots can be put into your curbside bin as long as they are made of rigid plastic (rather than crinkly or flexible plastic). They must be larger than four inches in diameter.

Buckets that are five gallons or smaller can be put at your curb, even if they have handles.

Officials with the Metro Recycling Hotline, a resource for consumers looking for a home for oddball recyclable items, still are not sure what will take the place of the hole Far West Fibers has left as a resource.

“Far West is still the most comprehensive recycling facility in the area,” says Metro Recycling Specialist Patrick Morgan, who still advises callers to go to Far West and dispose of what they can. “If they’re able to, they should save them and watch the situation with Far West, otherwise, it would just be garbage.”

For more information, call the Metro Recycling Hotline, 503-234-3000.