Oregon recycles! and plans to lead into the future

oregon recycles

by Bruce Bartlett, CPO 1 Vice Chair

Starting with our famous “Bottle Bill” in 1971, Oregon was the first in the nation to create a system of waste management that allowed glass and aluminum containers to be recovered from the trash. A deposit is charged on applicable beverage containers that is redeemed when the container is returned. Initially intended to reduce litter, the results were dramatic and now between 80-90% of the containers subject to a deposit are redeemed. This has created a consistent stream of high-quality clean glass for reuse.

In the 1980s, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established solid waste disposal laws to prevent the human health dangers caused by garbage disposal. These rules direct each state to establish solid waste systems that prevent pollution at landfills, maximize use of recoverable materials and encourage resource conservation. In 1983, Oregon legislators established the Opportunity to Recycle Act (ORS 459A) which directs cities with a population over 4,000 and all counties to offer recycling services and prioritize efforts to reduce waste first, reuse, then recycle or compost, and as a last resort landfill or incinerate discards.

Myth of “Chasing Arrows”

oregon recycles

Oregonians have a strong recycling ethic and took advantage of mandated curbside recycling pickup. Initially, recycled materials had to be rigorously separated by type, but in 1997 “commingling” was introduced to encourage wider participation. Manufactures started to place the “chasing arrows” icon on packaging, implying they are recyclable but usually they are not. Since there is not a good general understanding of what exactly is recyclable, garbage often winds up in the recycling bins. Plastic waste is particularly challenging to recycle. All those clear plastic clam-shell and most take-out food containers are actually “away” garbage (as in “throw it away”).

Like so many aspects of manufacturing in the 21st Century, China is playing a key role in transforming recycled waste into reusable raw materials. However Oregon, and the entire USA, can no longer rely on the global recycling model since China dramatically reduced recycling intake of mixed paper and plastics starting in 2017 due to contamination. 

Shifting the responsibility to producers

This created a huge disruption to the recycling model and forced the issue on the state. As a direct result, the Recycling Steering Committee (RSC) was formed in 2018 to confront Oregon’s recycling issues. The RSC’s proposed recommendations have been completed, calling for truth-in-labeling (no more chasing arrows on non-recyclable stuff!), a statewide collection list, reduced contamination, and accountability. The RSC seeks to expand the Bottle Bill to remove more glass from recycling pathways.

A powerful aspect of the recommendations is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which is a mandatory type of product stewardship that includes, at a minimum, the requirement that the producer’s responsibility for its product includes post-consumer management of that product and its packaging. Oregon currently has EPR laws for beverage containers, electronics, paint, and pharmaceutical products. Producers would be mandated to join a Producer Responsibility Organization (PRO). The PRO would operate on an eco-modulated fee model, where producers pay based on the environmental impact of their products. 

Amazingly, many manufacturers and other industry players are finding that Oregon’s modernization effort is workable and they are able to support it. Financing would be provided through a Collection Service Excise Tax, a Generator Fee, a Producer Fee, a Recycling Gate Fee Surcharge, a Solid Waste Disposal Fee Surcharge, and a Retail Packaging Fee that would be assessed at the point of sale and is the only fee paid directly by the consumer. Oregon’s current system, including the modernization effort slated for the 2021 legislative session, is explained in detail on this DEQ web page.

Locally, the 2019-2020 Annual Report of the Solid Waste and Recycling division of the county’s Department of Health and Human Services explains the information and resources the county provides to help community members, property managers and businesses sustainably manage materials by preventing waste, recycling, and disposing of garbage properly. Find a list of recyclables and recycling guidelines here