Oregon hopes to revamp its recycling system by charging packaging companies

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
June 25, 2021 9:38 p.m.

As lawmakers hurtle toward adjournment, Democrats are passing their big environmental priorities.

A mixed recycling container.

A mixed recycling container.

Allison Frost / OPB

Packaging companies will have a financial stake in whether their materials are recycled in Oregon, under a major bill that cleared its final legislative hurdle on Friday.


Senate Bill 582, one of majority Democrats’ chief environmental goals this session, passed the House by the slimmest of margins, 31-24. It cleared the Senate on a 16-13 vote — also a bare majority — and now heads to Gov. Kate Brown.

“With this bill, we have the opportunity to truly make a difference and move the dial on how much we recycle or how much we don’t,” said state Rep. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro. “We must have the producers share their responsibility to help with waste reduction.”

SB 582 requires producers of paper, plastic and other materials to fund new initiatives aimed at collecting and recycling more of their materials — whether via existing programs or new efforts. That includes paying for educational campaigns to help consumers better understand recycling, helping upgrade existing recycling facilities, and paying for things like trucks and new containers to help local governments expand their recycling offerings.

To fund those causes and others, producers would be required to join a “producer responsibility organization” that would charge fluctuating annual membership fees. A producer’s fees could be reduced if they lessen the environmental impact of their products.

SB 582 was one of several bills introduced by Democrats this year to help improve the rate at which the state recycles plastic, glass and paper. That push comes after new restrictions put in place by the Chinese government in 2018 reduced the state’s options for where it can send recycling material consumers turn in, which often includes “contaminant” products or trash that cannot be recycled.

With those restrictions in effect, thousands of tons of recyclable material in Oregon have wound up in landfills.

According to Richard Whitman, director of the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the added costs to producers under SB 582 would be roughly $83 million a year beginning in 2028, when new quotas for plastic recycling begin. The bulk of regulations would kick in in 2025.

“Right now the cost of dealing with these materials is borne by somebody,” Whitman told lawmakers in a budget subcommittee on June 16. “Frankly, it’s borne entirely by Oregonians and by local government. This bill would bring producers into the system and have them pay a portion of the cost of handling these materials.”

According to Whitman, DEQ’s estimate of $83 million in new costs is 28% of the total cost of handling recyclable material in the state.


Advocates for SB 854 say it’s only right to require the companies that make and distribute packaging help pay to recycle it.

“It made sense to pass some of these costs on to the companies using these products in their packaging,” state Sen. Michael Dembrow, a Portland Democrat and chief sponsor of the bill, said during a debate in the Senate earlier this week. “Industry could respond by absorbing some of the costs, passing some onto consumers and, ideally, finding more biodegradable, easier-to-recycle alternatives, which would help us all.”

But many producers have balked at the bill, which they say creates unnecessary new costs. In particular, some have taken exception to requirements that they pay for local governments to expand their recycling programs.

“That’s totally unprecedented to our knowledge,” said Paul Cosgrove, a lobbyist for the American Forest and Paper Association, one of many industry groups that has opposed SB 582. “If a small government decides it wants to convert to a curbside program, this [producer responsibility organization] must pay them... for trucks and bins and a reload facility.”

Opponents also argue the bill will impact consumers, who they say will bear the brunt of the added costs in the form of higher prices.

“This legislation does issue a lot of things and it does fix a lot of things, but it creates several [issues],” said state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale. “I do not believe the expectation that the manufacturers are going to eat those costs for the increased packaging are real. I believe they will pass them on to the consumers.”

SB 582 does more than force producers to pay into the recycling system. Among other things, it also:

  • tasks the state’s Environmental Quality Commission with creating an official list of material that can be collected through a “commingled” recycling program, where different products are collected in the same bin. The commission also determines which materials should be collected on their own by a producer group.
  • sets state goals that 25% of covered plastic products be recycled by 2028; 50% be recycled by 2040; and 70% be recycled by 2050. If those goals aren’t met, producer responsibility organizations must make changes to meet them, and the state could assign penalties.
  • creates a 15-member “truth in labeling” task force to “study and evaluate misleading or confusing claims regarding the recyclability of products made on a product or product packaging.” Earlier recycling reform proposals would have required producers to scrap the “chasing arrows” that signals a product can be recycled if that packaging could not be recycled in Oregon, but the provision was weakened.
  • requires local governments and DEQ to take steps to improve access to recycling programs in apartment buildings and condominiums

SB 582 does not include all packaging, exempting agricultural products, prescription drugs, paint containers and more. There are also exemptions for small producers with less than $5 million a year in revenue.

State Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, said last week those exemptions illustrate that Democrats were willing to work with producers. But he said the recycling bill needs to pass, comparing it to the pioneering “bottle bill” Oregon passed in 1971 in order to curb litter and another state program that recycles old electronics.

“All of those have gone into effect,” Beyer said. “All of those are widely supported by our constituents. All of those are widely supported by our constituents. All of those have made a difference. I don’t think anybody would dispute that the bottle bill has greatly cleaned up Oregon.”

Beyer noted he’d seen an ad opposing SB 582 recently in his local newspaper, and said he was not surprised that it had been paid for by national trade groups.

“In the course of doing this bill, I talked to many of those people from Washington DC and other places back east and they told me quite clearly their concern was that if Oregon established this program as we did with the bottle bill, it will become a national program,” Beyer said. “This is a good step forward. It’s the right step for Oregon.”

But unlike the bottle bill, it’s a step Oregon likely won’t be taking alone. While similar proposals in a handful of other states largely fell by the wayside this year, Maine lawmakers passed a bill last week.