It's the start of a new era for recycling in Oregon
Oregonians have a long history of recycling. It probably dates back to the 1970s and the Oregon Bottle Bill, when value was placed on what was garbage.
It's now unusual to see a bottle or a can laying on the ground because people see the opportunity to make a little money by returning it to a store. Over several years, this has evolved into a love for us Oregonians in recycling and reusing that is unique compared to other areas of the country.
Recently, it feels almost like we have taken a step back in time because we're no longer able to recycle certain plastics.
Much of the plastics our region recycles go to domestic and international markets. A good bulk of it was loaded into containers and shipped to China to be turned into products that we, in turn, purchased back from Chinese manufacturers.
So, in theory, the plastic food containers, known as "clamshells," from last night's dinner could become the housing for your next computer or a toy for your toddler. According to USA Today, "Every day, nearly 4,000 shipping containers full of recyclables leave U.S. ports bound for China. China sends the U.S. toys, clothes and electronics; in return, some of America's largest exports back are paper, plastic and aluminum."
Unfortunately, as of Jan. 1, things in the world of recycling have changed.
The market in China has become more limiting. China is now enforcing the "National Sword" policy.
The policy mandates a higher standard for contamination level of recyclables and limits many types of solid waste. The enactment of this policy is due to several reasons, but one reason in particular ties back to us in the office and at home.
Unfortunately, many of our recyclable goods are contaminated by stuff that shouldn't be in the mix, such as plastic lids and plastic bags.
The state does keep tabs on recycling data. DEQ (the state's Department of Environmental Quality) recently released data from 2016, which showed the region recycled or composted 48 percent of its waste.
This is a 5 percent decrease from 2015; the decrease comes mostly from losing a market for wood waste recycling. At one time, this waste would go to a Newberg papermill for power generation, but that mill has since closed.
Metro's solid waste forecast does predict 1.44 million tons of waste, or about 51 percent of garbage, will be composted or recycled in its next fiscal year (July 2018-2019), so there is still a lot of waste being diverted from the landfills.
Fortunately, many of the items we do recycle curbside have a dependable market demand. In being good stewards, we should always empty, rinse and dry our appropriate plastic items before they go in the bins.
Westside Economic Alliance member, Waste Management, recommends focusing on three basics, to help keep our local recycling systems efficient and healthy:
1. Recycle all cans, paper, and cardboard.
2. For plastics, focus on recycling "bottles, tubs and jugs."
3. Keep food, liquids and plastic bags out of the recycling!
Waste Management also provided a tip for recycling at home and work: Place containers for recycling and garbage throughout the house or work site, and label each container. You can even print free labels for your different bins from: RecycleOftenRecycleRight.com
I'm sure innovation will come into play with recycling and solid waste, and it will continue to evolve with time.
It would not be surprising to see one of two things happen: We will either see new markets emerge for recycled products or consumer behavior will change, impacting production and packaging.
I'm guessing back in the 1970s no one would have predicted the success of recycling today, and the kick start the Bottle Bill provided. Ultimately, recycling starts with what is consumed.
WEA will continue to provide information to its members as this issue evolves.
In the meantime, look to providing Metro with your feedback during its update to the Regional Waste Plan.
This is a plan that has not been updated in 10 years, and let's face it, a lot has changed even since 2008.
Pamela Treece is the executive director of the Westside Economic Alliance. Her column appears monthly, addressing issues that are critical to the economic health of the Westside. Learn more about the WEA at: westsidealliance.org