Wishful thinking hurts recycling efforts

A recycling bin full of glass products sits among several for public use at the Astoria Transfer Station on July 24, 2018.

A recent report from the state Department of Environmental Quality about Oregon’s goals for recycling included bad news: The state is likely to fall short of its goals for recycling more than half of the waste generated in the state.

For calendar year 2017, the state found, Oregonians recovered or recycled a little more than 2.3 million tons of waste. That works out to be about 42.8 percent of the roughly 5.4 million tons of waste generated in the state.

The problem is that the state’s Legislature has set a goal of 52 percent recovery by 2020. (The goal for 2025 is 55 percent.)

Officials told the Statesman-Journal newspaper, which reported about the survey, that the 2020 goal now seems out of reach. (A copy of the state report is attached to the online version of this editorial.)

Looking at the trends, it certainly appears as if Oregon is moving in the wrong direction: The recovery rate for the state peaked at 49.7 percent in 2012 and has been sliding since then.

To be fair, the 2017 rate of 42.8 percent was a little better than the 2016 rate, 42.2 percent. And that 42.8 percent rate for 2017 represents about 2.3 million tons of recovered material. That’s all stuff that doesn’t need to be dumped at a landfill.

And the state report noted some unexpected developments that depressed the state rate. If you’ve been following developments in the world of recycling, you know about one of them: China’s decision near the end of 2017 to ban imports of unsorted paper and post-consumer plastics.

But a bigger factor, the state said, was the unexpected 2015 closure of a paper mill in Newberg that was the state’s largest user of post-consumer wood waste as a fuel. Other mills stopped using wood waste because of federal air-quality rules, a state official told the Statesman-Journal.

That suggests one important lesson about recycling: Even the best intentions don’t matter much unless there are markets for that recycled material.

If you need more evidence about the connection between markets and recycling, consider what happened with bottles and cans in 2017: In April of that year, the deposit for those containers doubled, from 5 to 10 cents. Not unexpectedly, 2017 saw a substantial increase in the recycling of those containers.

Here’s another example: Scrap metal prices increased in 2017, and so did the amount of metals recovered, which jumped by some 14 percent.

Another hopeful trend involves manufacturers using lightweight packaging instead of heavier materials. The upside, the state said, is that the lighter materials tend to be easier on the environment. The downside is that increasing use of these materials could depress the state’s recovery rate, which is based on weight.

The state report contains a wealth of additional information, and some of it is surprising.

The report breaks the state into 35 separate “wastesheds,” which Oregon law defines as an area that shares a common solid waste disposal system. Even though they don’t exactly correspond to county lines, it’s still interesting to take a look at the 2017 numbers for the Benton and Linn wastesheds.

The first surprise: Both wastesheds for Linn and Benton were below the state average.

Another surprise: The Linn wasteshed had a higher recovery rate (37.4 percent) than did the Benton wasteshed (34.5 percent). Both wastesheds were below the 2025 goals set by the state Legislature (45 percent for Linn and 44 percent for Benton).

To be fair, only six wastesheds currently are running ahead of that 2025 goal. The best mark in the state, 52.8 percent, came in Lane County, but that county still trails its 2025 goal of 63 percent.

Hitting the state’s ambitious goals will require the development of robust (and stable) markets for recycled material. But here’s one more number to think about: Maybe we all could do something to reduce that 5 million tons of stuff we throw away every year.

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.