Vinod Singh plucked a black plastic deli tray from a bin at the Far West Fibers public recycling depot in Beaverton.
"This isn't part of the program and doesn't have a home," he said. The operations manager then picked out two clear, identical looking trays, one stamped "6" -- identifying it as garbage, since Far West can't recycle it -- the other "1," making it recyclable.
"They look exactly the same," he said. "That makes it difficult."
The mistakes were made by the region's most diligent recyclers, those who collected items that can't go into their home's curbside recycling bins and drove them to the public depot to keep them from the landfill.
But in recent months China, bent on improving its ecological image, has complicated their recycling efforts by telling the United States and Europe: enough with the garbage. The Chinese erected a "green fence" in March and told the world they'll still accept low grade mixed plastic but it better be pure: nothing with a "3," "6" or "7" stamped on it.
That's reduced what Far West Fibers can accept at its public depots and made the experience even more akin to the "Portlandia" spoof in which the sanitation twins explain fingernails and egg shells go in the cobalt-colored bin and broken umbrellas in the canary-yellow one.
"I think it's good China is taking steps not to be the dumping ground for the rest of the world," said Peter Spendelow, an Oregon Department of Environmental Quality solid waste analyst. "It will cause short-term problems but for the long term it's good."
It will force materials recovery facilities like Far West to produce a cleaner product, and it might expand the U.S. plastics processing industry if a large chunk isn't sent to China on container ships that originally brought over Chinese-made goods.
A woman near Singh clearly wasn't seeing the long-term good as she held a Fred Meyer processed food container and he told her, "Sorry -- I say sorry a lot these days." The woman declined to be interviewed, explaining, "I'm a little frustrated now," and then angrily dumping what she brought into a bin when Singh turned his back.
Far West Fibers had to reorganize the public depots in March, adding many more bins and making it clear what it won't and will take. Not allowed: anything that doesn't have a number stamped on it except for big items like Little Tikes play sets or laundry baskets. So that means no more plastic caps or busted Polly Pocket dolls or spent pens or cracked plastic plates.
Nothing with a "3" (PVC) or "6" (polystyrene) or "7" (other) on it.
Now a trip to the public depot is a much more painstaking experience with confused-looking people pausing and reading the signs for each item they want to recycle.
Because the sudden changes in mixed plastics so upset some recyclers, Far West tried to give the public more advance warning when it learned in May that China also no longer wanted plastic bags and film from material recovery facilities, since people rarely rinse out the plastic bags. So as of June 10, the public depots stopped taking plastic film and bags.
That took April Jensen of Clackamas by surprise.
"They don't take plastic bags?," asked Jensen, who arrived at the public depot with a load in her car. "It's so confusing."
What Far West accepts
Here's what the Far West Fibers public depots will now take and how it's divided up:
Plastic bottles with necks (i.e. juice or detergent) stamped with a recycling symbol 1 (PETE) or 2 (HDPE)
Plastic containers (i.e. yogurt or drink cups) stamped 4 (LDPE) or 5 (PP)
Clear plastic containers (i.e. clamshells) stamped 1
The only things that don't need a stamped number: bulky rigid plastics including buckets, crates, child play structures, storage bins, trash containers, baskets and lawn furniture. (No garden pots, PVC pipes, hoses, coolers, Styrofoam, tool boxes, fiber glass or 55 gallon drums.)
The "green fence" has also affected the more limited items grocery stores take. Whole Foods, for instance, stopped taking plastic film but will take plastic containers stamped with a number 5, according to Metro's Information Recycling Hotline. New Seasons stopped taking clamshells but still takes clean plastic bags. The Metro transfer stations are still taking plastic film, too.
Much of that is likely being stockpiled or sold to smaller domestic markets, said Eric Crum, director of Community Environmental Services at Portland State University. Portland has a great recycling system in place, but the majority of it is dependent on China for processing. The "green fence" underscores the volatility of that market and the benefit of growing more domestic and local recovery and processing facilities for these materials, Crum said.
A baggy predicament
Meanwhile, Far West—the Portland metro region's biggest material recovery facility company—has a stockpile China won't take.
Enormous bales of dirty plastic bags are sitting in a giant building as Far West ponders what to do with them. Also sitting there are 50 shipping containers of mixed plastics collected when China was more lax about what it would accept. Far West has started cracking those open to re-sort them, but that's a labor-intensive process.
Since China's changes, Far West has spent $8,000 more a month on extra labor to re-sort already collected mixed plastics and also to ensure regular curbside recycling is as clean as possible. It could cost upward of $2,500-$3,000 for a return trip if China rejects a load, and Far West isn't taking any chances. The "wishful recycling" that leads to garden hoses in the blue curbside bin is an even bigger headache for the company's sorters now, who want to make extra sure random items don't contaminate loads earmarked for China.
"We want to make a good end product," Singh said. "You can't make paper from a chicken bone."
Far West Fibers may be the region's biggest material recovery facility, moving 14,000 tons of material in May, but others are feeling the changes too. Oregon Recycling Systems is sitting on about 250 tons (10 containers) of lower grade plastics. Plant superintendent Jay McCuistion said he doubts China will reverse course.
Costs pile up
In the meantime, will the extra costs associated with sorting the plastics to China's standards lead to higher garbage rates in Portland? Far West has older equipment (no infrared optical sorters that can distinguish types of plastic) and it's generally thought the city will have to raise rates "to do the job right," said Jerry Powell, executive editor at Resource Recycling Magazine.
"The idea is to scare the American suppliers to straighten up their act," he said. "The operating model of Far West Fibers will have to change."
It's still too soon to know what kind of financial impact this will have, said Bruce Walker, solid waste and recycling manager for the city of Portland. It's important people don't throw the wrong things into the blue roll cart because, he said, "It costs money to get them out."
Linda Stevens of Tigard comes to Far West Fibers weekly to bring her recycling that can't go curbside as well as that of the downtown Portland clients she cleans for. Even proper curbside recycling takes work. Few seem to know caps and lids are a no-no. She doesn't find the latest changes onerous, but she's pretty sure even those who go to the depot aren't "checking every little thing to see the number. I'm sure there's contamination going on in there."