Oregon Rethinks the Future of Recycling

Even though Oregon is considered the third greenest state in the United States, and a national leader when it comes to recycling, Oregon’s waste-management programs are not actually recovering all of the state’s recyclable wastes. The cause of this tragedy is not that consumers and businesses are failing to put materials into designated recycle bins, it is that they are putting in too much – garbage that is. Another culprit is the environmental evil of the century—plastics. Constantly emerging new types of plastics have misleading or inaccurate recycling labels, which confuse well-intentioned consumers. And so, reusable materials become contaminated with waste that must be sorted out, often by hand. Given the massive volumes hitting transfer stations, waste-management companies cannot keep up with sorting challenges and are forced to find buyers for contaminated material. In 2017, China, one of the biggest buyers of such materials, stopped buying many types of waste from the United States. As a result, much of Oregon’s recyclable material has ended up in landfills.

In 2018, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality collaborated through a Recycling Steering Committee consisting of private and governmental associations, waste-related businesses, and the City of Portland, to reshape Oregon’s waste-management processes. The Committee worked to envision what a future recycling system should look like in Oregon, conduct research to inform decisions, gather feedback from other stakeholders, and recommend changes to achieve that future system. In September, 2020, the Committee released its framework to modernize Oregon’s waste-management system, which is intended to be consistent with the 2050 Vision for sustainable materials management adopted December 6, 2012. The new framework, in the form of recommendations to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, will require the state to pass legislation that DEQ is drafting for the 2021 session.

A cornerstone of the new waste-management framework is the concept of shared responsibility; manufacturers will no longer be allowed to introduce new packaging into the marketplace that meets their requirements but forces consumers and governments to deal with its disposal. Instead, producers of packaging and printed paper will be required to fund many system improvements, support expansion of recycling service across the state, and ensure responsible recycling. Part of these requirements include a “truth-in-labelling” requirement so that packaging has accurate information about whether it can be recycled or composted, or must be landfilled. Local governments will maintain local control of collection and customer education, and processors will be required to meet new performance standards.

Processors have already been moving forward with plans for upgrading and building infrastructure to better manage Oregon’s waste. Metro, the regional government serving Clackamas, Multnomah, and Washington counties, is currently evaluating a 12.5-acre property in Cornelius as the potential location of a new recycling and transfer center. A decision on whether or not to buy the property is expected in December 2020. A survey to contribute opinions on this issue is available here.

Oregon’s recycling challenges are not unique. Communities across the globe struggle to manage the detritus that is part and parcel of buying. Oregon’s dilemma and the findings of the Steering Committee make clear that the problem will not go away if we close our eyes to it. Unless waste management becomes part of both manufacturing and purchasing decisions, Oregon will never be as green as it touts itself to be.

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