When it comes to recycling, we're just like everyone else. We stand in front of the bin, examine the package in question — the salad container or the produce bag — and try to do the right thing. We want to recycle as much as possible.
That might be a problem.
That's because when you put something in the recycling bin because you hope it can be recycled, it bogs down the whole recycling system. And unfortunately, many of the plastic containers we use these days — like the ones that hold the snacks we all sometimes buy on a busy day — don't go in the recycling bin. They go in the garbage.
It doesn't feel good to put plastic in the garbage — but it's sometimes the best thing to do for the environment. Maybe you've heard of "wish-cycling" — filling up the recycling bin with anything that looks recyclable. This drives up costs and makes it harder to recycle what really is recyclable.
For the last decade-plus, some industrial processors in other countries would take whatever recyclable material we sent them, even if it was "contaminated" with plastics that aren't recyclable. Now processors, both here and abroad, will accept only materials that are well-sorted. That's caused global disruptions in the recycling system — there are fewer places to send materials, and garbage mixed with the recyclables can now be a reason to reject an entire load.
Locally, workers at sorting facilities are working hard to dig through our recycling and pull out what shouldn't be there. And they're continuing to find new places to send materials.
But the disruptions provide an opportunity to take a hard look at how we recycle and how we can do better. The fact is that our system hasn't changed much since Oregon started collecting home recycling nearly 30 years ago. But in recent years, the packages our products come in have changed dramatically and will continue to do so.
Clearly, our recycling system needs to be more adaptable. We need to look at every part of the system, from the way we sort recycling to the items we collect and how we collect them, to the roles of government and the recycling industry — and particularly of product manufacturers, who currently play no role in the system, except to produce the stuff we buy and throw away.
Metro has already taken steps to invest in innovation, with a grant program the Metro Council adopted last year that will infuse up to $25 million of private and public money into the system over three years. This program is intended to help businesses and nonprofits prevent waste through reusing, repairing, recycling, composting or making energy from the stuff that is discarded in greater Portland.
And over the next year, the Metro Council will be looking at other potential investments in the system to modernize it, expand its capacity and ensure we can recycle as much as possible as packaging and the world economy change. We'll also look at how the system can better support the local economy and ensure the benefits the system provides are shared equitably across the region.
It's also important to remember that our impact on the environment doesn't begin and end at the recycling bin. Those impacts start with the extraction and production of the materials that make the stuff we buy and the manufacture and transport of that stuff. That means manufacturers need to take more responsibility for designing products and packaging with lower environmental and health impacts.
It's both overwhelming and exciting. And wherever we're headed, we must keep recycling. And we must recycle right. Metro and local governments have created a simple way to do that at RecycleorNot.org or ReciclaroNo.org.
You can also ask Metro your recycling questions at 503-234-3000 or oregonmetro.gov/askmetro.
Shirley Craddick, Juan Carlos GonzÁlez and Bob Stacey serve on the Metro Council.
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