Oregon is not very good at recycling, and it’s getting worse, according to a new report. Overall recycling rates in the state have steadily declined for the last several years, even as the amount of waste generated per person in the state has grown.
The report, published Thursday by the group Environment Oregon, uses data released yearly by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. It finds that Oregon faces major barriers to meeting its recycling goals. Nationally, recyclable plastics are being replaced with lower-value plastics. In Oregon, polystyrene (the flaky, foam-like material used in single-use coffee cups) isn't recycled by municipal governments, and a legislative proposal to ban it statewide failed last year. Consumers can take certain polystyrene products to privately run drop boxes in some cities around the state.
This doesn’t mean that Oregonians aren’t passionate about recycling. The biggest barrier to recycling in Oregon is structural: less of the material placed in recycling bins can be repurposed by domestic facilities, and exporting recyclables to countries like China has become more difficult.
“The bottom line is, we need to take more of these products out of the waste stream,” Celeste Meiffren-Swango, the state director of Environment Oregon, said.
It’s not just an Oregon problem, it’s a national — even global — issue. For years, recycling in the United States has relied on Asian countries to take our waste. Many countries, finding that arrangement unprofitable, have started incinerating the recycling, dumping it in landfills, or simply stopped accepting recyclables from the United States altogether. The few countries that still purchase U.S. recyclables are increasingly facing unexpected health impacts stemming from too much waste and no way to process it.
One silver lining: after Oregon raised the deposit on beverage containers covered by the bottle bill, recycling rates of glass, aluminum, and plastic bottles rose dramatically. Still, Oregon is having trouble finding places to purchase and repurpose even those recycled goods. Increasingly, that waste is being burned in "waste-to-energy" facilities.
While the Department of Environmental Quality counts material burned in waste-to-energy facilities among their total amounts of “recovered” waste, Environment Oregon does not. According to the report, that’s because burning a metric ton of recyclables in an incinerator produces 15 times more carbon dioxide — a greenhouse gas that’s contributing to global warming — than plastic waste in a landfill.
Meiffren-Swango said that means there’s only one way to decrease the amount of weight going into landfills and being burned in “waste-to-energy” facilities: consumers need to stop using it. But that doesn’t seem to be happening: although the amount of waste produced per-person in Oregon dropped dramatically from 2007-09, coinciding with the Great Recession, it has slowly but steadily grown ever since.
But the report says that’s the exact opposite of what it should be doing. With the “recycle” part of “reduce, re-use, recycle” increasingly becoming less viable, Meiffren-Swango said “we need to be focusing on ways we can actually reduce in the first place.”
Clarification (Nov. 18, 2019): An earlier version of this story didn't provide enough information on recycling options for polystyrene. While Oregon cities do not recycle it, consumers can drop it off at certain locations in Oregon.