Oregon’s recycling system is suffering from a long list of ailments.
Confusing labels and mismatched rules across the state are leading Oregonians to put too much trash in their recycling bins.
Recycling companies are struggling to sort the trash from the recyclables and find buyers for the contaminated material they receive, so a lot of it is getting dumped in landfills. Since China stopped buying contaminated recyclables in 2018, local governments have had to raise the price of recycling collection or make drastic cuts in recycling services. Some places don’t have recycling services at all because it’s too expensive.
For the past two years, a statewide recycling steering committee has been working on how to solve these problems.
Their recommendations to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality are the basis of a new plan for overhauling the state’s recycling system. The proposed new strategy requires companies that sell paper and packaging to help pay for solutions.
It calls for dramatic changes in how product packaging is labeled, what’s allowed in everyone’s recycling bins and who pays for things like trucking recyclables long distances, upgrading recycling technology at sorting facilities and tracking where recyclable material ends up.
The plan depends on new requirements for companies to take responsibility for their product packaging and make sure it doesn’t end up in the wrong place. It will require the state to pass legislation that DEQ is currently drafting for the 2021 session.
Truth in labeling
David Allaway, senior policy analyst with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, said the state is following a “shared responsibility model” wherein thousands of producers of all kinds of packaging would help local governments and state regulators pay for a better recycling system.
“Producers would step in and provide financial support to allow all of Oregon to have a consistent, uniform service level,” Allaway said. “And we would bring everyone up to a level playing field by combining ratepayer funding with producer funding.”
The plan takes aim at a major culprit in consumer confusion over what goes in the recycling bin: the chasing arrows recycling symbol.
Allaway said most plastic packaging with that symbol can’t be recycled in Oregon.
“So instead of requiring this misleading symbol, which is what the law currently does, we propose prohibiting the symbol — unless the plastic item actually can be recycled in Oregon,” he said.
It seems like a no-brainer, but dozens of U.S. states still require the chasing arrows on all plastic packaging. Allaway said he’s hoping they will follow Oregon’s lead and change their laws, too.
“If Oregon were to actually step out and say, ‘This label is deceptive. It’s confusing the public. It’s harming the environment. It’s making our recycling system dirty and complicated and expensive’... and if we actually enforced against it? I suspect many other states would either follow our lead or step out of the way.”
One list to rule all recycling
The new plan would also create one universal list of what’s allowed in everyone’s recycling bins statewide. That will help companies label their packaging accurately if it is indeed recyclable, Allaway said.
Lane County Waste Reduction Specialist Sarah Grimm, who sat on the state’s recycling steering committee, said that’s one aspect of the new plan she’s looking forward to, given the mixed bag of rules for plastic recycling across her county.
“It felt like Christmas morning when I got my first look at what was to be our final proposal,” she said.
Grimm said she suspects the thousands of companies that sell packaging in Oregon will try to shape but not stop the legislation requiring them to pay into the new recycling system.
“I think it’s clear to the manufacturers that they do bear some responsibility,” she said. “They use packaging as advertising to manipulate people into spending money and buying more stuff, and therefore they should take responsibility for it. They’re financially benefiting from it and turning over the financial burden to the local government, and that seems wrong.”
Similar policies known as “extended producer responsibility” laws already exist across the world in Canada, Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America. Other U.S. states, including Washington, California, Maine, Connecticut and New York have tried to implement similar systems but haven’t yet succeeded.
Unlike the system British Columbia has for producer responsibility in packaging, Oregon’s proposed system wouldn’t put manufacturers in charge of the whole recycling process. It would leave recycling haulers and processors in charge of collecting and sorting recyclable materials and require packaging producers to help pay for key aspects of the system.
“Our goal is to reduce the changes imposed on citizens and local governments,” Grimm said. “We wanted to maintain the relationships and control for local communities.”
The fees paid by packaging producers would be adjusted based on whether or not they create recyclable packaging, Grimm said, to incentivize them to use more easily recyclable material.
Under the new program, those fees would help pay for better tracking of materials to make sure Oregon’s recycling doesn’t end up polluting the environment in other countries, and they would fill in the gaps where critical funding is lacking for things like paying to truck recyclables from rural areas to urban sorting facilities.
The system would be governed by DEQ and a new recycling council with representatives from industry, government and environmental groups.
Producers open to the idea
Ameripen Executive Director Dan Felton, who represents dozens of companies throughout the packaging supply chain — from Dow Chemical to PepsiCo to Waste Management — said his group listened in on Oregon’s recycling steering committee meetings, though it didn’t have a seat at the negotiating table.
Ameripen has fought against producer responsibility laws for packaging in other states, Felton said, but the group “has been very appreciative of Oregon’s thoughtful, measured approach.”
“It’s very different from the approach other states have taken,” he said. “Oregon took its time and engaged stakeholders to talk about all the different issues.”
He said his group recently came to terms with the idea of extended producer responsibility laws.
“Our mindset is changing with the reality that industry, whether it be brand owners or packagers, is facing increasing pressure on several fronts as far as recycling systems and how to fund them,” he said.
Felton’s group has members that make packaging, use it for marketing, recycle it and dispose of it, and they’ve noticed more and more states trying to pass new laws requiring them to take responsibility for what happens to their products at the end of their useful life.
“We will come out in support of some forms of industry funding,” Felton said. “That is favorable for states like Oregon looking to have that conversation and trying to figure out who should pay for the recycling of the future. We’re ready to be part of that conversation.”
Felton said the big question for his group is what Oregon will do with industry funding. It supports funding that would go toward packaging and recycling innovations and consumer education, Felton said.
“We are less interested in paying for daily operations of recycling if they want to shift the burden of paying for that to industry,” he said. “We’re not interested in being the ones running recycling systems.”
A long haul ahead
Vinod Singh, outreach manager for the FarWest Recycling and a member of the state’s recycling steering committee, said the challenges facing the state’s recycling system are immense, and they won’t all be solved overnight.
“It took so much work to get to this point, and it’s going to take equally as much work to get to the next phase,” Singh said. “It’s a really big lift, and it might not all happen at one time. It might happen in pieces. The goal is not to put the extra costs on the ratepayers.”
The recycling committee recommended having companies that sell packaging help pay for better wages for workers at recycling sorting facilities like FarWest, as well as equipment and technology upgrades that will help them do a better job of removing trash from recycling. Sorting facilities are also going to be expected to track and report where all the material goes after it leaves the sorting facility.
“With all these things come more cost and more work,” Singh said “Someone’s going to have to support those costs.”
Allaway said the extra funding from packaging producers will also pay for things like expanding recycling services in apartment complexes and rural areas where it’s less accessible right now.
The recycling reforms will end up costing producers tens of millions of dollars, he said, but the costs to individual companies will be “peanuts” by their standards, and he expects them to have minimal impact on the price of consumer goods. One selling point for industry, Allaway noted, is the fact that there is no requirement for all their packaging to be recyclable.
There will be a lot to negotiate, he said, but he anticipates getting some degree of the support he’s already heard from industry lobbyists.
“Generally speaking, many of the large corporations that sell packaging in Oregon are now saying publicly, ‘Yes, there is a problem. And, yes, producers should have a role in making the recycling system whole again,’” he said. “They see the writing on the wall. They know that extended producer responsibility for packaging is coming.”