'Product stewardship' is the next frontier in solid waste management

When it comes to trash, Oregon historically has been a leader.

Let’s clarify that statement since it is meant positively, not negatively. Oregon has been in the forefront of efforts to decrease the amount of garbage we dispose of by implementing initiatives based on the three Rs — reduce, reuse, recycle — plus composting. Some examples:

• The Bottle Bill — the first statewide beverage container deposit law.

• The Opportunity to Recycle Act, the first state-level legislation to define the three Rs and composting as priorities for solid waste management over disposal.

• The Oregon Recycling Act, which said we should recover or divert from disposal 50 percent of the state’s solid waste.

• Legislative support for programs to reuse/recycle paint (again, the first in the country) and electronic products.

Finally, Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality recently adopted a Materials Management Vision for 2050. It looks beyond waste diversion practices, like recycling that occurs in the “downstream” part of the economic cycle when products have reached their end-of-life stage.

DEQ, along with other solid waste professionals in Oregon and across the country, is looking for more waste reduction to occur in the “upstream” portion of the economy where products are designed, manufactured, and distributed.

Oregon thus has been a laboratory for innovative, leading-edge programs and policies designed to address solid waste — with one conspicuous, unfortunate and frustrating exception: a statewide ban on single-use plastic bags used at checkout counters in retail stores.

Such a policy has failed to get legislative approval three times — in 2010 (Senate Bill 1009), 2011 (SB 536), and 2013 (SB 113). This despite bipartisan sponsorship led by Sen. Mark Hass and an impressively long, diverse list of more than 500 proponents, such as the Association of Oregon Recyclers, Oregon Business Association, Oregon Environmental Council, the Northwest Grocery Association, Western Pulp and Paper Workers, and individual businesses of every type and size from across the state.

Paradoxically, it is precisely Oregon’s reputation as a leader in waste diversion that may make future passage of a statewide plastic bag ban difficult, despite the broad political, business and organizational coalition favoring such a policy. We are a trendsetter whose visibility needs to be challenged. The heavyweight opposition has come primarily from outside Oregon: Hilex Poly (a major plastic bag manufacturer), the American Chemical Council, and the American Progressive Bag Alliance, among others.

Absent a statewide ban, the cities of Corvallis, Eugene and Portland passed their own versions. Sen. Hass believes the 2015 legislative session is the most likely time for reconsideration; time is too limited in the 2014 short session. A statewide ban is still the ultimate goal, according to Sarah Higginbotham, state director for Environment Oregon. But during the interim, the organization’s strategy is to launch campaigns in six cities: Ashland, Beaverton, Bend, Lake Oswego, Salem and Tigard.

Consumers can do their best to purchase products that are reusable, recyclable and compostable, and then actually reuse, recycle, or compost them. But we cannot, and do not, determine whether products arrive in the marketplace with those characteristics.

Decisions about product design, durability, materials use, manufacturing and distribution traditionally have been made in what we refer to as the private sector, often with little regard for their solid waste impacts. What to do with things after they are no longer useful was historically a problem for public works and solid waste departments at the municipal and county level.

As downstream reuse, recycling and composting become more common and effective, it is apparent to many solid waste professionals that increasing waste reduction requires decreasing the amount of materials used in upstream economic stages. Deliberately designing and manufacturing products at the front end with reusability, recyclability and compostability as primary criteria is the next new frontier in solid waste management.

Product designers and manufacturers should also participate in planning, implementing and, ultimately, sharing in the costs for waste management programs. The emerging concept of “product stewardship” or “extended producer responsibility” embodies these ideas.

An important step toward this new frontier is an emphatic statement that if disposal is truly our least preferred option for solid waste management, then we have to stop making things that can only be disposed of. A statewide plastic bag ban is a sound move in such a direction. The fundamental issue is control over waste-stream composition. Public-sector agencies and entities at the state, county and city levels need to exert influence equivalent to that of corporate decision-makers if those agencies and entities are statutorily responsible for how solid waste is managed, as is presently the case in Oregon. A statewide plastic bag ban would establish the legal and political precedent for that influence.

Richard Hertzberg of Lake Oswego was Metro’s first recycling coordinator and has been a waste management consultant for 30 years.

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