Sweet Home facing ‘recycling crisis,’ City Council told

Sean C. Morgan

Recycling materials are piling up at material recovery facilities with nowhere to go, and that includes refuse from Sweet Home.

Sweet Home Sanitation Site Manager Scott Gagner said the grounds around Pioneer Recycling Services in the Portland area, where Sweet Home’s recycling is trucked, were once clean. But now, after the implementation of Chinese restrictions on recycling material, hundreds of tons are piled on the grounds because the company has nowhere to take it.

It is a “recycling crisis,” Gagner told the City Council March 27 during its regular meeting, and he said he is looking for guidance and input from the council on behalf of the Sweet Home community.

“We’ve been dealing with this, really, since last summer,” Gagner said. “It’s become a really serious issue in the last six to eight months.”

Before restrictions began taking effect at the beginning of the year, China would take anything, handling 50 percent of the world’s recyclables, Gagner said. Now that’s dropped to an estimated 20 percent.

Currently, China is willing to take newspapers, magazines, corrugated cardboard and mail clippings, Gagner said. If anything has the slightest contamination, China won’t take it. On inspection of a single shipment container, if it has contamination, China sends the entire ship back.

Each shipping container costs $3,700 to send to China, he said.

China is unwilling to take recyclables that are more than .1 or .2 percent contaminated, Gagner said. Oregon’s recyclables are about .5 percent on a “very good day,” and Sweet Home probably runs around 5 to 10 percent.

Costs are going to go up significantly, Gagner said, and he wanted to talk to the councilors about what they think is best for the community in terms of price increases and land-filling some recyclables.

Right now, it costs Sweet Home Sanitation almost five times more to recycle than it does to put recyclables in landfills.

“One year ago, I used to get paid for recyclables,” Gagner said. Today, China won’t take anything, and MRFs are backed up.

Sweet Home Sanitation used to receive $20 to $30 per ton, Gagner said. That’s swung to a cost of $70 to $80 per ton.

Sweet Home Sanitation has a flow to Pioneer right now, he said, but he doesn’t know how long that will last.

Over the next few months, Gagner said he will be bringing ideas to the council and looking for help working through the issue.

Recyclers have alternatives in the Middle East, Asia and the United States, Gagner said, but they’re all more expensive, charging 10 to 30 times what China charged. Most of Sweet Home’s recycling is going to the Middle East right now.

“They can’t take what China could,” Gagner said. “It is a crisis.”

Councilor Diane Gerson asked what it would cost to stop recycling at all. Gagner estimated 25 to 40 percent more.

“I don’t know what the solution is,” said Councilor Dave Trask, noting the similarity to raising wastewater rates to address ongoing issues in the wastewater system.

Were China to begin accepting recycling again, Trask asked whether Sweet Home Sanitation would reduce rates.

“We’re not looking to gouge anybody,” Gagner said. Sweet Home Sanitation would be transparent, and rates would reflect decreases in recycling costs.

Trask said he didn’t want the situation to get like it has with wastewater rates, suggesting it should be increased to cover the costs safely.

The city did not raise rates last year enough to cover the cost of the wastewater utility this year, and the council had to increase rates to cover a growing deficit in January.

He asked whether Sweet Home Sanitation could put out different containers with customers sorting different recyclables into different containers.

It’s a lot of work, and people won’t do it, Gagner said. When it had a buyer, that’s why Sweet Home Sanitation went to commingled recycling.