How can Oregonians change their recycling habits and make sure their efforts are actually effective? Pam Peck, Metro’s policy and compliance program director, joins us with details on what needs to change and how to improve recycling in the state.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. We turn once again to recycling. What happens after the truck rumbles away from your street with your paper and plastic and metal and glass. Where do those materials go? Are they actually recycled or are they thrown away or burned for fuel? If you’re in the Portland Metro area, we now have more information. That’s because starting in 2019, the Metro regional government started asking, sorting facilities for information about where the materials they sorted were actually sent. Pam Peck is Metro’s Policy and Compliance Program Director. She joins us to talk about what they found. Pam Peck. Welcome back to Think Out Loud.
Pam Peck: Thanks so much for having me here today, Dave.
Miller: How much did you know about where Portland area recyclables were going before you started asking in 2019?
Peck: Very, very little. So we had very little information about that. We could really only look at a higher-level information. National-level information. So we really didn’t know. We just had a lot of questions.
Miller: Did you have assumptions or guesses?
Peck: Yeah, I mean we knew that because of, a couple of years back, when China started changing their acceptance standards for recycles, I mean we knew a lot of materials were flowing to China and China changed their policies because too much of what was coming to them had trash mixed into it. And they adopted much stricter standards for what they would accept. And that’s really led us to ask a lot of questions about where are these materials going? And that was the impetus even prior to that, we wanted to know more about where the materials are going, but that change in those markets has made it even more critical situation now that we can really see the problems that happen if recyclables are, do have a lot of trash included in them.
Miller: One of the graphs that in your report shows that 40% of all plastic recyclables, through the Metro system are going to Asia. And it’s not just China, they’re one of the big countries that processes, but there are others. Do you know what’s happening to that plastic, after it arrives in some country in Asia?
Peck: We really don’t. That information has been considered to be confidential for many years, because materials are sold, could be sold, a number of times as well. So there’s a couple of, confidentiality is one issue, and then the other issue is just that materials could be bought and sold by multiple parties. So materials may go into the hands of what we would call a broker. That might be, a broker might purchase them from a sorting facility. That broker might sell those materials to somebody else along the way. So it’s extremely hard to track. And we really don’t know what that final disposition looks like, how much is recycled into a new product and how much ends up being thrown away. And then, does that place, is the place that the material is going, equipped to really handle the material? And we know from a lot of great reporting we’ve seen and documentaries, that many places are not adequately equipped to handle the material. What you end up with is a lot of plastic litter in our oceans and waterways, and also plastics potentially being burned in ways that don’t have air controls or things. So basically they threaten people’s health and safety in the ways they are managed in some cases, but we just don’t have the information to really help us know how much, except now, at this point, knowing a great deal of plastic is going to Asia.
Miller: So I mean, are you assuming based on all of that report and there’s been a kind of crescendo of it. There’s been more and more recently as the public has been paying more attention to this and our eyes have been opened about the fact that that often plastic is simply not recycled. It’s been that way for decades. Is it fair to assume that a lot of that plastic is being burned or put into landfills?
Peck: I think it’s, I think it’s really hard to say. I mean if it were put into a landfill that would probably be the best case of what might happen to it, if it was put into a landfill and kind of captured there and kept there as opposed to ending up as litter ending up in waterways ending up being burned if it’s not burned in a way, You know, if it’s burned in a way that doesn’t have air pollution controls, and we really wouldn’t consider it recycling if it’s burned.
Miller: a big chunk of Metro’s recycled materials, go to other West Coast states. Do you have more information about domestic processors?
Peck: We do have more information about domestic processors, but there are also a lot of questions there. The materials, some materials that flow to the West Coast are flowing to brokers. And once again, we really don’t have as much information about what happens if materials do go to a West Coast broker. But I want to point out that when there’s trash and the recycling, it impacts our local markets as well. So the Nor Pac Paper Mill has invited many folks working on recycling in Oregon and Washington to see how contaminated with trash the paper that they receive. So this is paper. So this is like plastic bags, plastic wrap, that may get mixed in with paper because it’s difficult to sort those components out. So I visited the paper will and just saw the tremendous amounts of plastic that are coming to them in paper, which really increases their costs, and makes it challenging for them to use that material. So the trash and the recycling is a problem no matter where the recycling goes. And a big goal is to basically be able to produce clean, cleaner bales free from trash. And there’s a lot of different things we need to do to get there so that our system can be more resilient and we can know that wherever the material goes, it’s not filled with things that aren’t recyclable to start with.
Miller: I want to hear more about ways to actually clean up these streams, so they can be more efficiently or effectively recycled. But I want to go back to what you’re talking about brokers. It. Are there legal impediments to Oregon, or any state actually learning about the, you know, the trips that the recyclable materials are taking, I mean, what can you ask of brokers and what are they required to tell you?
Peck: Right, those are out-of-state businesses, out of our region. So we really don’t have a way to look at that. And that’s why the state bill that you referenced is so important, because at the state level, we can do more things that we can do here at the regional level, and the Plastic Pollution and Recycling Modernization Act that’s under consideration by the Legislature, would say that materials can only go to facilities that are certified by the state in regard to how well they can sort the materials. And the bill also calls for producers of this packaging to ensure that there is a responsible end market.
Miller: What’s a responsible end market?
Peck: A responsible end market would mean the materials are being recycled. We can see that they’re being made into another product and that any contamination or trash things that aren’t, that are mixed in are handled appropriately, so they’re not ending up as litter, they’re being handled appropriately. So in that case, it would be going to a landfill for that trash that might be left over after the process.
Miller: So, if I’m not mistaken, you’re talking here about Senate Bill 582 a which is being considered in the legislature, right now. So if there were, say some of, I don’t know, yogurt maker, how would this bill change? The way they would have to operate in terms of the package is they’re putting their yogurt in what, how those would be labeled and what would be required of this company as a producer.
Peck: So the bill really leverages the power that producers have, because consumer brands, packaging producers and plastic manufacturers, they’re really in the best position to make meaningful change in their products, and help support the recycling system. We need to manage those products effectively. So the bill calls for producers to share responsibility with the local communities, because our recycling programs in Oregon are managed at the local level at this point, and this would bring a systematic statewide approach. So for that yogurt maker, they would join a producer responsibility organization, that would be working too, and they would pay fees into that organization, based on, based on the type of packaging that they use, and the cost of appropriately managing that packaging. And the bill will also be looking at how we can make labels more truthful in the future. So it’s going to have some follow-up actions around looking at the labels on packaging. And then another key thing is that producer organization would help to support recycling education so that people know what should go in the bin. And the other key piece is they would help to inform the development of a statewide, a single statewide list that has takes consideration to, are their responsible end markets for those materials. Are we able to sort those materials? Are we going to gain environmental benefits from recycling those materials? So it creates that systematized list and then allows us to build the rest of the program around it. So it really helped put producers, as I said, sharing responsibility and leveraging the knowledge and expertise and resources they have.
Miller: Would that company be able to put their product, and just sticking with yogurt because it seems like such an easy example, could they put yogurt in containers that could not be recycled? Would that be allowed?
Peck: Well, the what, pack, all packaging would be primarily covered by the bill. So it doesn’t matter whether the packaging is considered to be recyclable or not. So if its packaging on a product that’s sold in Oregon, it would be covered by this bill.
Miller: You mentioned labeling. The last time we talked about potential changes to recycling laws. We heard from David Allaway at the Department of Environmental Quality. He was pushing for the state to get rid of that three arrow recycling symbol that is basically on so much of the plastic in our lives, including plastic that, for economic or chemical reasons, is almost never recycled. Nevertheless, we have those little signs that tell us as consumers, it gives us, his argument was a kind of false message. We think that we’re making a responsible choice as consumers because this is going to be recycled when in fact, it’s not and it’s not necessarily because there’s waste in the recycling bin. It’s not because of economic global reasons. So his argument was get rid of that logo because it’s misleading. Is that under consideration, to actually mandate, at the state level, that if you’re going to sell something in Oregon, you can’t put that insignia on the bottom of your plastic?
Peck: Yes. This bill would set up an additional task force to look further into what we can do with labeling to have more truthful labeling. It kind of gets that process started of looking at what to do with labeling. We heard through the legislative process, concerns about different labeling requirements in different states around the country. So that effort will look at how to better meet those concerns and move forward with the truth in labeling approach.
Miller: One of the things that this bill would do, and you mentioned this briefly, but it’s worth coming back to, is systematize and make statewide, our very varied recycling systems in the state. How different is recycling from town to town? City to city?
Peck: Yeah, in the last couple of years, it’s become more different than it was because of those changes to markets around the world, which have increased costs dramatically. So for many parts of the state, where they also have to transport recyclables long distances to get to Portland for processing, they have a lot more costs than we do here in the Portland area. So a key thing this bill would do, would be, would actually help to support the cost of transporting those materials. Producers would do that to help get those materials to market, or to the Portland area.
Miller: One of the messages that I’ve got in the last two years, either explicitly or sort of under the surface is that the, some of the big problems with recycling have been because people are putting the wrong things in their bins, as you mentioned, either wish cycling, you know, thinking erroneously that they were putting the right thing in there that can be recycled or in some cases maliciously, you know, putting dirty diapers just to gunk up the system or, you know, ignorantly putting stuff because they just didn’t know. But hearing you talk, it seems like this is not at base an individual problem, this is a systemic one. Is that a fair way to put it?
Peck: Yeah, I would absolutely agree with that. I mean, it’s very confusing. The system is very confusing for the public to use. You might have different lists when you go around to different parts of the state, as we just talked about the labels, don’t make that clear. Then if you live in an apartment or a condominium and you use shared recycling bins, what you might find when you go to use those bins is that they’re full; there isn’t enough space in those bins. Those bins aren’t well labeled. So this bill would also address that and look at improving services for folks and apartments and also ultimately look at how we can make those - that we would call them the enclosure - where you go to bring the recycling, how to make that work better for folks. So there’s a lot of barriers to the individual, just in the system, if you’re not living in a single-family home. In a single-family home, it’s a little bit more straightforward, but you do have all that confusion of trying to look at the label and we know that people have busy lives and they need to be able to make a quick decision about whether to put something in the bin or not. I think our previous efforts to promote recycling have made people think we need to recycle as much as possible and really we need to recycle, right? So if people aren’t sure if something should go in the bin, it might feel wrong, but they should put it in the trash, if they’re not sure. And we’ve got a lot of great resources here in the Greater Portland area and around the state you can use to understand what is included in your local program. And I would encourage people to visit ‘recycleornot.org.’ If you’re in the Greater Portland area, you can play a little online game and test your knowledge. We also have an Instagram feed. You can send photos of things you have questions about and you can link to a lot of other recycling resources from that site for your local community program. So there are some things the individual can do. But as I agree with you, it’s a systematic issue that we need to address. All throughout the system, we need to be able to sort the materials better, too and make investments. Our sorting systems have trouble keeping up with all the changes in packaging, so that’s an example of a place we need to invest. So we can really sort the types of materials that we’re seeing today, the types of packages we see today.
Miller: Just briefly, this bill that you’ve been talking about, Senate Bill 582. It hasn’t passed either chamber in the Oregon legislature yet. It’s now in the Ways and means committee. What do you see as its chances?
Peck: Well, we were very pleased to see it passed out of the policy committee, and there’s strong support for the bill, from area cities and counties, from environmental groups. There’s a number of businesses that have come on board to support the bill, Association of Counties, League of Cities, so there’s a broad coalition in support of the bill. So that makes us very hopeful. But it is a very critical time for the bill, to really get it heard in the Ways and Means Committee because the Legislature, of course, is very busy and they’re getting near the end of their session. So this is the time for folks to contact their legislators and really let them know. It’s important. We can’t wait. Our system can’t wait another two years, because if this bill passes, it will take a while to get this whole new system set up. So it’s really critical and urgent that we take action if we want to address the issues of plastics.
Miller: Pam Peck, thanks for joining us today.
Peck: You’re welcome, thanks so much, Dave.
Miller: Pam Peck is a Policy and Compliance Program Director at Metro. That’s the Portland Area Regional Government.
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