Portlanders love to recycle. We enjoy it so much we throw all kinds of stuff into our blue recycling bins that doesn't belong there.
Plastic bags, batteries, Styrofoam—and diapers. Lots of dirty diapers.
"Diapers aren't the heaviest things people put in recycling bins that don't belong there," says Vinod Singh of Far West Recycling. "But they are the grossest."
The average Portland household put 614 pounds of recycling in its blue bin last year, an amount that has nearly tripled over the past 25 years. That recycling total is a point of civic pride—only a handful of major U.S. cities recycle more.
Just one problem. A large percentage of what Portlanders throw in their bins is actually garbage.
In the decade since the implementation of commingled recycling in rolling blue carts, the recycling stream has gotten more contaminated. At least 9 percent—and often more than twice that amount—of what goes in the blue bins is pure garbage. (For the six most common mistakes, scroll to the end of this story.)
"We started seeing diapers when Portland went to every-other-week trash pickup," Singh says. "We pulled out about 14,000 diapers in February, 12,000 in March and 11,000 in April. It's disgusting."
Now, in large part because of that contamination, Oregon's pioneering recycling industry faces a crisis. One result? Portlanders were hit in May with a record price hike in their monthly bills for waste removal.
It's also resulted in towns and cities all over Oregon, for the first time since recycling became law, asking the state for permission to dump material that used to go into recycling bins straight into the trash. The state said yes.
The root problem: The chief buyer for Oregon's recycling says what's in our blue bins is just too filthy to accept.
In 2016, China bought 60 percent of the world's materials collected for recycling. That country's mills had an insatiable appetite for scrap paper, metals and plastic—and they'd accept whatever we sent them. But last year, China announced a policy called "National Sword" aimed at reducing the amount of contaminated recyclables the country was importing.
Beginning last fall, mountains of wastepaper and plastic grew rapidly as every recycling processor in Oregon frantically searched for buyers to replace the Chinese. On May 3, China suspended all imports of paper and most plastic from the U.S. for a month, after multiple container loads of U.S. material failed the country's new contamination standard.
The shutdown of the Chinese market has thrown the recycling industry into chaos. And among major West Coast cities, nowhere are the effects felt more strongly than in Portland.
"I've been at this 40-plus years," says Jeff Murray of EFI, a recycling company on Swan Island. "We've never seen anything like this, ever."
China's abrupt change in policy has revealed an inconvenient truth: Oregon's recycling ethos has generated a passionate following, but in reality, Portlanders are incompetent earth lovers. We recycle enthusiastically. We just don't know what we're doing.
"We became over-reliant on China," says Bruce Walker, the city of Portland's solid waste manager. "Now, because the Chinese have shut their door, there's a vast oversupply."
The scene at Far West Recycling is medieval.
A patchwork of conveyor belts, magnetized metal separators, blowers and alarms creates a ceaseless din as trucks arrive with the regularity of airplanes landing at PDX.
Each one arrives with 8,000 pounds of curbside recycling.
The trucks disgorge their loads on a concrete apron the size of a soccer field. Beeping front-end loaders pile up the debris so it can enter a series of conveyor belts that will produce giant bales of mixed paper, plastic and metals.
On a recent day at this Hillsboro facility, a dry fog of dust and the sweet-sour stench of unrinsed food containers filled the air.
The castoffs are evidence of a consumer society. There are old magazines, copies of WW and The Oregonian, Nancy's yogurt tubs, Amazon packaging, Nike shoeboxes, junk mail ("Vote for Kate!") and lots of trash that should never make it into blue recycling bins: coils of insulated wire, a rickety stroller, rubber hoses, plastic bags and diapers.
A small army of pickers and sorters stand over fast-moving conveyor belts that angle through the cavernous facility. They've picked guns, money, dead animals (never a human body) and just about anything you can imagine from the belts.
"We get a lot of TV remotes because people accidentally wrap them up in their newspapers," Singh says.
At 47, Singh is a lifer in the recycling industry. He's a big Damian Lillard fan who wears a Trail Blazers logo on his hardhat.
Growing up in Washington County, he participated in paper drives as a Boy Scout and started work sorting materials at Far West in 1990 while he was still in college.
He's picked contaminants from fast-moving conveyor belts, driven forklifts and operated other machinery before moving into management of the company, which has five locations around the metro area.
But Singh and all the pickers can't get the stream clean enough to meet the contamination standard China is now enforcing: 0.5 percent.
"It's just impossible," Singh says. "If we get to 2 or 3 percent, we're doing really well."
Oregon's pride in its recycling ethic is the stuff of legend.
"We all grew up recycling in this state," Singh says. "It's in our blood. It's in our DNA."
Over the past four decades, Oregon pioneered new approaches to recycling bottles, cans, paper, plastic, wood and food waste that once ended up in landfills. For many Oregonians, their blue bins became almost religious icons.
It began 1971, when lawmakers passed the nation's first Bottle Bill. They wanted to clean up Oregon's beaches and roadsides where people threw their empties. But the motivation soon became more than that.
"People have an emotional attachment to recycling," says Dylan de Thomas of the Recycling Partnership, a national advocacy group. "When you have something in your hand, you can throw it away, which is considered bad, or you can recycle, which is good."
In 1983, lawmakers passed additional laws requiring that every town larger than 4,000 people offer a curbside recycling program.
Recycling grew steadily in the ensuing decades. The most significant leap forward came in 2008, when Portland transformed its system from separate, open tubs for glass, paper, plastics and metals to 60-gallon blue rolling bins, where all recyclables except glass came together.
The ease of being able to toss everything except glass in the same bin increased the recycling rate, and helped Portland advance toward the state's goal of recycling 55 percent of its waste stream by 2025.
Although it's taken on almost cult status in Oregon, recycling is at its core a commodity business driven by supply and demand.
Historically, material recovery facilities such as Far West paid hauling companies a fee per ton for recyclable material delivered. It was then up to the facilities, called material recovery facilities, or "MRFs" in industry parlance, to separate the material and find a buyer for each commodity: mixed paper, plastics, cardboard and metals.
But the market for recycled materials differs from traditional commodities in a couple of important ways.
First, the "producers" don't care about price. When the value of a typical commodity such as wheat declines, farmers may plant other crops or put their harvest in storage. Households and businesses act differently: No matter how low the prices of wastepaper or plastics, they still fill their recycling bins.
That means the supply of recyclables never stops, even when demand dries up and prices drop. So when the Chinese stopped buying, MRFs saw prices plummet and had to comb the world for new buyers.
"It's the worst time the processors have ever had," says Pam Peck, Metro's resource conservation and recycling manager. "It's just overwhelming."
Another big difference between recycling and traditional commodities: quality.
As far back as 2013, the Chinese government established maximum contamination levels for recycling, but only in the past six months did the Chinese actually enforce their rule. Contamination—everything from staples to the residue on your yogurt tubs to diapers—must be no more than 0.5 percent.
The stuff that comes out of Portlanders' blue bins is often more than 20 times that level.
The problem in Portland is that in the decade since commingling went into effect, consumers learned bad habits.
"When you move to a big roll cart from a small bin, people put things in they didn't put in a bin because it was too small," says the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality's longtime recycling guru, Peter Spendelow. "It also opened up 'wishful' recycling where people say, 'It ought to be OK to recycle this big chunk of Styrofoam,' so they put it in.'"
In 2011, Portland gave residents another bin for wet compost to add to the recycling stream. At the same time, the city shifted to collecting garbage only every other week—which led some people to throw garbage in their blue bins.
"To an extent," Spendelow says, "there are people whose garbage service was too small."
The signs of an impending crisis slowly made their way to the general public.
Last October, for instance, grocery stores in Portland such as New Seasons stopped collecting plastic bags and the plastic clamshell packaging that don't go into blue bins. They blamed "international market restrictions."
And in January, U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) wrote the Chinese ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, pleading for help. "Instead of immediately halting these imports," they wrote, "we urge China to work with the United States…so this mutually beneficial flow of materials does not come to a complete end."
The Chinese were unmoved.
"A lot of people thought they were bluffing," says Laura Leebrick of Rogue Waste Systems in Medford. "They weren't."
Although President Donald Trump has escalated trade tensions with China, recycling industry experts say the new National Sword policy is primarily aimed at addressing China's environmental degradation—part of it caused by serving as the world's dumping ground.
"This has nothing to do with a trade war with China," says Jerry Powell, who co-wrote some of Oregon's original recycling legislation and is the founder and editor of Resource Recycling, an industry publication. "It's China cleaning up its own act."
In 2016, China absorbed 60 percent of the world's exports of recyclable materials and at least that much of Oregon's. Powell says a lot of that material was garbage that ended up tossed in rivers, dumps and on the ground. But now the Chinese government is determined to end the country's reputation for lax regulation.
"They just created a super-EPA, and it's got real power," Powell says. "They've got some of the most sophisticated recycling facilities in the world and some of the crudest and dirtiest. They want to get rid of the latter."
When China shut the door, Oregon was particularly vulnerable. That's partly because we recycle more than most places. It's also because we have fewer places nearby to send our recycling.
Oregon used to have strong local buyers for waste products, especially mixed paper, which can be fed right back into mills.
But in February 2011, the century-old Blue Heron paper mill, located on the Willamette River in downtown Oregon City, closed. The mill had been re-engineered to run almost entirely on the wastepaper Oregonians tossed in their recycling bins. WestRock closed a paper mill in Newberg in 2016, and Georgia-Pacific shuttered one in Camas, Wash., this year.
By the time Chinese mills stopped buying, the local markets for paper were already gone.
Prior to National Sword, processors such as Far West paid haulers for the recyclable material they brought. Now, it's the other way around: The haulers have to pay the processors to take the materials.
The shift led to major policy changes.
On May 1, the city of Portland hit residential solid waste customers with a steep rate increase in their monthly bills, which show one price for removing garbage, recycling and compost.
Customers saw their bills go up $2.55 a month, of which $2.18 was attributable to the higher cost of recycling—i.e., having to pay processors to take the stuff.
It may not sound like much money. But last year, Portlanders paid just 27 cents a month to get their recycling hauled away. The price increase from 2017 to 2018: 715 percent.
Outside the metro area, there are hardly any MRFs to process recycled materials. When commodity prices dropped, the cost of trucking materials from, say, Roseburg to Portland or California for sorting proved too expensive.
Oregon has long been a recycling pioneer, but the state's recovery rate—the percentage of waste reused or recycled—has plateaued and is now declining (although we're still above the national rate of 34.6 percent). Blame mill closures and the economy: When it's booming, people consume and throw away more and recycle less. Here's Oregon's recycling rate for each of the past 25 years:
Source: Oregon Department of Environmental Quality
The Dirty Truth
A big part of the problem is that what goes into our blue bins is too dirty.
After years of lax enforcement, China is now demanding a contamination
limit of 0.5 percent. Metro tested single-family bins in 2015 and multifamily
bins in 2017, and contamination levels were 18 to 42 times China's limit.
Last September, cities all over the state began asking DEQ a question previously unthinkable: Could they shorten the list of materials collected in recycling bins—and instead throw the material that no longer had value in landfills?
DEQ reluctantly said yes, first to Central Cost Disposal in Florence and since then to 21 more cities, including Pendleton, Roseburg and Medford. The state has now allowed the diversion of more than 10,000 tons of recyclables to landfills.
Leebrick's company, Rogue Waste, was one of those that sought permission to landfill materials that had been recycled for years.
"It felt frustrating and slightly nauseating," Leebrick says. "It's a hard thing. I was attracted to this industry because I'm a recycling advocate."
It may get worse before it gets better. Last week, Douglas County announced it would no longer recycle even newspaper and cardboard.
In the long term, Chinese mills will probably need U.S. wastepaper. But nobody is counting on the country resuming purchases at prior levels. The Chinese government never even responded to Wyden and Feinstein's January letter.
"China's decision to close its market to recyclables, without even allowing global supply chains time to adjust, has created an impossible situation for Oregonians committed to reducing waste," Wyden told WW in a statement.
There are variety of ways to mitigate the challenges Oregon's recycling system now faces.
One is to return to where recycling began. Through the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative, bottlers are mandated to take back the waste glass, metal and plastic they produce. That means the producers, rather than a market buyer who might disappear, are responsible.
Former Multnomah County Commissioner Jules Bailey, now the chief stewardship officer for OBRC, says the co-op recycles all its own plastic bottles in Columbia County and doesn't depend on Chinese buyers.
Companies, particularly manufacturers and big online retailers that produce vast quantities of difficult-to-handle packaging, could be required to accept more responsibility for their waste, taking it back as bottlers do.
"We can do more with regulation," says Walker, Portland's solid waste manager. "We also need to ask: What should manufacturers and companies like Amazon do?"
A second answer is reducing contamination in the bins.
Some haulers in Clackamas and Marion counties, for instance, are using mounted cameras to monitor what goes into trucks. If there's too much garbage, workers place "oops tags" on the offending bins, with the warning that repeat offenses might result in a refusal to accept material.
Changing consumer behavior is hard. Metro and the city of Portland send out regular communications aimed at explaining what's supposed to go in the blue bins.
Our MRFs also tend to be old and inefficient. Experts say, for instance, that leading recycling cities, such as San Francisco and Seattle and even red-state cities such as Las Vegas and Cincinnati, have invested much more in sorting and processing.
Resource Recycling's Powell says he recently visited a state-of-the-art MRF in San Francisco that produces a stream with half the contamination of what's coming out of Portland-area facilities—although California and Washington still face the same challenge as Oregon.
"We are woefully behind in terms of technology and infrastructure compared to other cities," adds de Thomas of the Recycling Partnership. "There's new, more sophisticated machinery built to sort things better. We simply don't have it here."
In the meantime, Oregon processors and brokers are combing the globe for new buyers.
Local MRFs are sending batches of materials to plastic recyclers in Canada and mixed paper to mills around the region. But so much manufacturing has moved offshore, it's hard to find North American buyers. Overseas, India and countries such as Vietnam have upped their purchases of wastepaper, but they cannot replace the lost Chinese demand. And on May 21, a key Vietnamese port announced it was restricting paper imports and suspending plastics imports for four months.
Ultimately, Oregonians will have to decide whether we are truly committed to recycling or it was just a feel-good exercise that stopped working when we had to put some thought into what we put in blue bins.
The ORBC's Bailey says when he tells friends who were raised here about the crisis the recycling industry faces, they can't quite believe it.
"It's a big deal," Bailey says. "They are saying, 'Have I been misled this whole time?' It's like I'm telling them there is no Santa Claus."
Santa never existed, of course—the fantasy was just the idea that recycling required no more effort than throwing stuff away.
That has to change.
"For years, we've said, 'Recycle more,'" says Singh. "Now what we're saying is, 'Recycle right.'"
The Dirty Half Dozen
A decade after Portland shifted to commingled recycling, many people remain confused about what should not go in the blue bins.
The bewilderment has become such a cliché that it was featured in a Portlandia sketch (way back in season two). Yet for recycling advocates, it's no laughing matter.
"We feel like we've educated on plastic bags and plastic film for a long time," says Kristan Mitchell, executive director of the Oregon Refuse & Recycling Association. "But no matter what we say, people still throw them in their blue bins. It's a disaster. Workers have to stop the processing machines and cut the plastic out with knives."
Some things should be obvious—garbage, dog poo—and some may not be so obvious, like lithium ion batteries (think singing birthday cards), which cause fires.
Here, based on studies that Metro and haulers have done, are the dirty half-dozen items that should never go blue:
The nonprofit WW Fund for Investigative Journalism provided support for this story.