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Washington Residents Are Warned Their Recyclables Will End up in Landfills

China has decided the U.S. is letting food and garbage contaminate too much of its recyclables.

October 20, 2017

Washington recyclers are worried they could soon have no place to send your discarded paper and plastics. That’s because China has decided the U.S. is letting food and garbage contaminate too much of its unwanted milk jugs and other recyclables.

China is the biggest buyer of recyclable plastic, paper and metal from the U.S. Starting next year, China will no longer take our recyclables. They say those materials are coming over with food scraps or types of plastic that can’t be recycled.

No more unclean chili cans. No more of the wrong types of plastic. No more things that just get tossed in recycling containers: junk like garden hoses or grocery store plastic bags.

By the end of the year, China will only accept products that have a 0.3 percent contamination rate, something industry groups said is “virtually unattainable.”

That’s left Northwest recyclers in a lurch. Oregon has been asked to allow recyclers to ship customers’ paper, plastic and metal materials to landfills.

“The problem is it has nowhere to go,” said Julie Miller of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, in an earlier interview with EarthFix. “Recycling centers are filling up with material.”

In Washington, recycling is most often handled at the city and county levels. That means it’s difficult to tell how each municipality is handling the upcoming changes.

Brad Lovaas is with the Washington Refuse and Recycling Association. He said Friday that could mean more of the state’s recycling could be headed for the trash heap.

“If it comes to it, and they hold to this ban, if they hold to the contamination levels, there will be no market for many of the things that we collect in our curbside and commercial recycling programs right now,” Lovaas said. “There’s just no way to replicate what China consumes right now anywhere.”

Lovaas said recyclers are going to have to slow down the processing and sorting of products to meet the new standards.

That could mean, in the near term, many recyclables will be headed to the landfill — it’s not safe or healthy to just store them somewhere until further notice.

Washington’s recycling rate is around 50 percent, Lovaas said, which is above the national average, as are Oregon and California’s recycling rates. That’s one reason the West Coast is feeling the pinch of losing its biggest recyclable buyer.

“We still are questioning whether we can attain the levels that — at least right now — (China) is dictating,” Lovaas said.

Right now, Lovaas said consumers should still continue to recycle. Just check with local programs to make sure you know the rules — and throw things away if you aren’t sure if they can be recycled.


Bundles of mixed plastic had to be dismantled and sorted by grade after China changed its purchasing policies. Now Far West Fibers sorts all plastics by their recycling number.

Amanda Troxler

There are 8 comments

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Really? And zero comments? WTF?

So sell it to places like Sweden that burn the trash for energy. They'll be more than happy to take it. There's so much more we can do with our garbage than just put it in another damned landfill.

I say dump the containers on the front lawn of the CEO of the corporation which manufactured that product. That is the kind of feedback loop needed here.

And when actually did we adopt the insane notion that we can produce billions of one-use plastic containers every year and there'll never be any consequences?  At every stage of its existence, from oil-drilling through toxic leaching to ultimate "disposal," plastic is a menace. Homo not-so-sapiens is destroying the means of its--and other species--subsistence.

Come on Captain Obvious.  Dumping it on some exec's door step is not the answer for the carelessness of us consumers.  It is up to you, me and our neighbours to rinse out the tin cans, not throw them in the recycling with a mess of food residue still in them.  It is we consumers who are the problem, not the manufacturers.  The recycling companies should also do a quick check of what they are picking up, if it's contaminated, do as other jurisdictions and leave the recycling in place with a notice to the homeowner to clean it up for pickup next time round.

Better understandiing of plastics is needed.  what leaches into ground waters from old land fills comes from things other than plastics.  The fact plastics don't break down well is the problem of when it ends up as litter.  Plastic bags for shopping consume less fuel than paper bags do, but they hurt the environment when they are allowed to blow around while the paper bags break down quickly in our rain. It would be easy to go on about all the benefits plastics have brought to our lives such as more fuel efficient vehicles.  Lots of plastic does get recycled.  Our company has been doing it for over 60 years.  We recycle the PET (#1) that isn't good enough to go back into bottles.  We also recycle millions of bottle caps.  We have recycled the labels on an experimental basis, but have not overcome the fluffy nature of it to put it into production.  The sad part is we have to source our PET from Oregon and California where they have deposit laws so that the sources are relatively "pure".  Oregon recycles about 2 times the number of bottles as Washington on a per capita basis.  If we had a 20 cent deposit law nation wide, it could work.  that would make the waste stream clean enough to make China want it, plus kids and homeless people would really find it attractive to collect bottles that people are too lazy to return themselves.  Nuf said.

Won’t we need all that recyclable material to recycle it ourselves when all the manufacturing jobs return to the US, due to corporate tax reductions?

#1. Why in the hell are we shipping our recyclables to China? Why is the process not done here?#2. Don't the issues that are being raised by China get addressed at the recycle sorting plants in the states?#3. Items that cannot be recycled should not have a recycle symbol on them.