Recycling rate has been down in all parts of the state in recent years, though, surprisingly, it may have gone up a bit in 2017

COURTESY: METRO  - One of the areas where Oregon can step up its recycling is at big apartment complexes, which, as this illustrates, often aren't set up well for recycling. It was America Recycles Day on Thursday, Nov. 15, and Environment Oregon marked the day by releasing some sobering numbers on the declining share of waste being recycled in Oregon.

The advocacy group reported that the recycling rate in Oregon — and in every single county in the state — fell from 2012 to 2016, the latest year for which data is available.

"It's America Recycles Day but unfortunately, Oregon is moving in the wrong direction," said John Ammondson, a fellow at the Environment Oregon Research and Policy Center who contributed to the report.

Environment Oregon recommended new statewide policies to reduce the use of harmful and hard-to-recycle single-use plastics, as well as investment in curbside compost collection, education and outreach efforts, local recycling facilities, and remanufacturers.

Peter Spendelow, a state recycling expert for the Department of Environmental Quality, concurred with Environment Oregon's assertion that the state won't meet its looming statewide recycling goal.

"I can't see any way where we can meet the 52 percent goal by the year 2020 at this point," Spendelow said.

His recently updated data found the state recycled about 42.2 percent of its waste in 2016. But he expects the 2017 rate, which will be formally calculated and released in December, should be a tad higher.

"It's probably up a little, but not more than 1 percent," Spendelow estimated.

That may surprise some people, given China's well-publicized decision to stop buying mixed paper and plastic scraps collected on curbsides here, which has wreaked havoc in the markets for reusing those products.

But recycling for items like steel, cardboard, wood waste and yard debris appears to have offset reductions in paper and plastic recycling, Spendelow said.

One of the big causes of the reduction in statewide recycling from 2012 to 2016 was the closure of a big paper mill in Newberg, which had been using recycled wood as "hog fuel," Spendelow said. That wood was supplied from many surrounding counties, driving down their recycling rates.

Another big factor has been the ongoing shift to on-line newspapers and magazines, which reduced the amount of paper being produced, and recycled, in Oregon.

That may not be all bad, Spendelow said. "We can see tons (of recycled materials) go up and down, but what we really care about is the impact on the environment," he said. And paper often requires cutting down trees and tremendous energy usage at paper mills.

One of the factors that drove up recycling in 2017 was the expansion of the Bottle Bill. The deposit on beverage containers doubled from a nickel to a dime, resulting in less glass and plastic bottles tossed in the trash.

The city of Portland has a higher recycling rate than the state average. Bruce Walker, the solid waste and recycling program manager for the city Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, said the recycling rate in the city in 2016 was about 53 percent.

But the rate for residential recycling was higher, hovering around 60 percent, and it hasn't changed much in recent years, Walker said.

"Our residential recycling rate is staying pretty steady, at right about 60 percent or sitting above 60 percent," he said.

But the recycling rate for the city's business and commercial sector is lower, and that accounts for a much larger share of the city's waste stream. "It's about a 4 to 1 ratio," Walker said, meaning the commercial sector accounts for about four-fifths of the waste stream and the residential sector accounts for only about one-fifth.

In other parts of the state, there is more balance between commercial and residential waste, Spendelow said.

The city of Portland is hoping to increase the commercial rate by getting more recycling among large apartment complexes, and via a looming Metro mandate for large producers of food waste to recycle it. Metro is in talks with Waste Management to use an anaerobic digester system at the city's sewage plant in North Portland to process the region's food waste, and turn it into energy.

The city also expects to reduce waste coming from plastic straws, stirrers, condiments and tableware with a new policy about to be approved by the City Council.

DEQ and others also are involved in ongoing discussions about how to find new markets for plastics recycling in the state, and on ways to reduce the amount of waste being produced.

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