Oregon lawmakers passed a bill in 2021 to upgrade the state’s recycling system — and get manufacturers of packaged goods to pay for a lot of the improvements. Lawmakers in Washington recently tried to do something similar. Even though the proposal didn’t pass in the last legislative session, it built momentum for the concept of holding producers of plastic packaging responsible for recycling that material. Reporter Sam Wohlfeil recently dug into this topic for InvestigateWest and joins us to talk about it.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Last year, Oregon lawmakers voted to upgrade the state’s recycling system and to get manufacturers of packaged goods to pay for a lot of those improvements. This year, lawmakers in Washington tried to do something similar. Their effort didn’t pass, but it does seem that there is nationwide interest in holding producers of plastic packaging more responsible for the total life cycle of the stuff they’re making.
Reporter Sam Wohlfeil recently dug into this issue for InvestigateWest and she joins us now to talk about it. Sam Wohlfeil, welcome to Think Out Loud.
Samantha Wohlfeil: Great. Thanks for having me.
Miller: Before we turn to the changes that are afoot in Oregon and that other people in other states would like to see, can you just paint us the broad picture of how the recycling and trash streams work right now, for what the status quo is in Washington and plenty of other states?
Wohlfeil: Sure. I think this issue came to a lot of people’s attention several years ago because we’ve sort of switched to these single stream bins, where we just have one bin. We throw all of our recycled material in there, whether it’s plastic or cardboard, or metal. And they go to these things called materials recovery facilities where people and robots sort out the garbage that’s been thrown in there that isn’t actually recyclable. They bail them up, and previously we were shipping a lot of that to China, but it was really contaminated and a lot of it wasn’t ultimately getting recycled. So, the last couple of years, Washington, Oregon and basically a lot of the world has had to sort of grapple with that and figure out new ways to make sure that things like plastic ultimately do get recycled.
Miller: How would what’s known as extended producer responsibility be different from what you’ve just outlined?
Wohlfeil: In part, this will hold the producers or the manufacturers who are picking the packaging for things that we’re buying accountable. They will have to pay for the ultimate recycling and re-use of that packaging. So, they’re sort of able to pick if your berries that you’re getting at the store come in a plastic clamshell. Right now, they aren’t really held accountable if that isn’t something that can be recycled in your area. And an extended producer responsibility allows states to say, we need you to do that and we need you to pay for the processing of that material once people are done using it.
Miller: One of the mechanisms for this is what’s known as a producer responsibility organization. What do they do?
Wohlfeil: Those organizations ultimately sort of make sure that those…that recycling is happening on the ground. So they make sure that every community that needs access to garbage is also getting recycling picked up. They make sure that the bins full of recycled materials are going to sorting facilities and that those streams of plastic or cardboard or aluminum are then going to businesses that can actually recycle them and make them into new materials. They sort of set the prices as well.
Miller: Washington lawmakers seemingly hit a snag when it came to both municipalities and companies agreeing on an implementation plan for this bill that they were trying to pass. What were the concerns that cities had about this?
Wohlfeil: Sure. The way it was explained to me is: some cities have sort of what you would call, maybe like a Cadillac system where they’ve really cared about recycling over time and they’ve maybe even added on additional ability to collect materials that are hard to recycle in most areas of the country. So, maybe they’ve got a styrofoam collection area or they collect paints and things like that. They didn’t want to let go of that in order to follow maybe more the Honda Civic plan that everybody around the state would be held to under a plan like this. Part of the issue with recycling is consistency from area to area. You can go across a city or county line and suddenly you’re not able to recycle glass anymore or certain types of plastic. So the idea of a lot of these programs is to make sure that everybody in the whole state can recycle the same materials, but that would maybe limit some areas that have gone above and beyond.
Miller: What about the actual manufacturers, what were their complaints or worries?
Wohlfeil: I think a lot of them seem to be interested in cooperating with this. From the folks that I talked to, one of the concerns I think that played a role in Washington’s negotiations, was who gets to say how much, those streams that we just talked about, when we’ve sorted out all the plastics of one kind, for example, who gets to purchase that on the other end as the re-manufacturer? Who gets to melt it down and make it into new bottles or other materials, I shouldn’t just limit it to bottles. We’ve seen a lot of states start regulating how much post-consumer recycled material needs to be in things like beverage bottles. So, those materials are really valuable to companies now.
Miller: How much of an end market is there for these various kinds of plastics or other materials? As you noted at the beginning, part of this is a result of China saying, No, we don’t want your mixed up streams. The stuff you’re sending is too dirty for us to to really sort in an efficient or clean way, which led to all kinds of tumult in this country. I remember hearing that one of the issues was well, can we actually make this stuff pencil out? Can we do something with this potential waste? Does it pencil out now?
Wohlfeil: I think for certain materials, it does. We focus a lot on plastics when we talk about this, but I think we’re struggling right now to make it pencil out for all types of materials. Glass is an example where it’s an extremely recyclable material, it’s very easy to melt back down and create new products out of it, but it’s super heavy to transport. So, the closer to the source of that collected recycled material you can have a company that wants it, the better. And I think a lot of the Pacific Northwest right now is working on creating markets, creating these businesses or encouraging current businesses to expand and grow, so there is a place for those materials to go to.
Miller: Meanwhile, as I noted, Oregon lawmakers are actually ahead of Washington lawmakers on this. Can you remind us what the Oregan legislature passed last year?
Wohlfeil: Yes. They passed a version of this packaging extended producer responsibility. They, sort of uniquely different from Washington’s, did not include beverage bottles because [Oregon has] a nice deposit system that has been in place for a long time.
They’re working on this similar sort of program. I believe right now they’re actually pretty close to finishing up a report for the legislature on truth and labeling, which is sort of this idea: You might have a product that you buy that comes with a plastic covering and a cardboard backing. How clear is the recycling symbol on the back of that to consumers? Do they know that they need to separate those two things before they throw them in the bin? They’re looking at what sort of labeling requirements they might need to put on people before this really gets rolling in, I think, 2025.
Miller: This recent piece is the first in a series of articles you’re working on. What’s next?
Wohlfeil: Up next, I’ll be looking at some really cool research that’s going on in our area, both by citizen scientists and environmentalists and researchers in Oregon, sort of quantifying plastic pollution throughout the Pacific Northwest and looking at steps that we might need to take to reduce that. Really, we don’t understand a whole lot about the exact sources of our pollution, so that’s part of it. We don’t really understand what it means when we say an animal has “x” amount of microplastics in its gut. We need to know what that actually does to their systems. We’ll be looking at that in a larger piece and what we can do.
Miller: Sam Wohlfeil, thanks very much.
Miller: Sam Wohlfeil is a freelance reporter for InvestigateWest.
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