Reduce, Reuse, Re-think: The future of recycling

In case you missed it: China is restricting imports of U.S. waste material. Headlines about the National Sword in the Pacific Northwest may sound discouraging — but it may be the change we need to build a healthier future. OEC spoke with Pete Chism-Winfield of the Oregon Association of Recyclers. Here’s Pete’s five top take-aways from an insider’s perspective:



1 China is trying to protect the environment

China’s decision to stop accepting imports of waste is an effort to clean up their own air and waterways. For years, when cargo ships brought goods into Oregon, it has been cheap and easy to return them filled with scrap and waste. Chinese companies would process the waste into raw materials to feed the country’s manufacturing industry. The down side, Pete explains, is that when Chinese companies sort and clean our curbside recycling, the non-recyclable bits might end up in an incinerator, or simply dumped. As Pete says: “The oceans are all linked. When you are throwing plastics in a river in China, it is not crazy to imagine that plastic making its way to the Oregon coast.” He recommends the documentary “Plastic China” for an eye-opening perspective on the issue.

2 For U.S. households, recycling should be a second-to-last resort:

“Recycling is important, but we shouldn’t lean on it to absolve our environmental conscience,” says Pete. He reminds us that the old adage “reduce, re-use and recycle” is designed to be practiced in that order. For households, recycling is a step up from trash—but it is far better to avoid creating trash or recycling in the first place. Because so much of our waste comes from food packaging, it is a great environmental choice to avoid packaging by buying whole foods, buying in bulk or in concentrate. Pete also gives a shout-out to people who brew their own beverages and re-use bottles.

3 No more “wishful recycling”:

Some well-intentioned people will put things that aren’t accepted in their roll cart, hoping that they find a place to be recycled. But this “wishful recycling” is part of the reason why China is drawing a line, rejecting mixed paper and mixed plastic. Batteries, plastic lids and plastic bags are among the biggest contamination problems. You can help our recycling industry by following instructions. If the product or packaging in your hand isn’t on the “Yes” list, don’t put it in the recycling bin. You can look up your recycling company by zip code at you want to know more, consider taking the “Recycling 101” course or the 8-week “Master Recyclers” course.

4 It’s time for Oregon to re-think recycling:

Pete reminds us that all recycling systems aren’t in crisis. The recycling of glass bottles, electronics, propane tanks, scrap metal, paper from industry —all this works very well. China’s big change gives Oregon a chance to re-think what we do with our state’s curbside recycled material. For example, Pete says, British Columbia has a system that puts packaging-makers in direct relationship to recycled material. The company that makes the package is also responsible for collecting, processing and using the raw materials from the waste packaging. This “circular economy” — connecting production to disposal — is what works about the bottle bill, Oregon E-Cycles and the “Paint Care” paint stewardship program.

If the process of turning collected plastic back into raw material happened in a bigger and more varied way here in Oregon, we’d bring jobs to the state—but the trade-off would be that we’d have to manage the pollution, too. Pete sees great potential for the future of recycling here in Oregon to lead to more responsible manufacturing as well. What if we used recycled plastic in ways that actually prevented it from becoming litter or waste? What if, instead of making more plastic forks and single-use bottles, plastic were used to create durable goods, roads and building materials that last? It would take some bold moves by the state to create incentives and flexibility, but this investment could help Oregon become a leader in recycling innovation.

5 It’s high time for a culture change:

One-use disposable products are a big part of the problem. Though we think of these items as convenient, it might be time to make a change from the “throw-away culture” into one that values and maximizes materials through a longer span of use. It’s about changing individual habits, but it also means giving people better options for reducing waste. Just as one example, Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative is working to bring a re-fillable bottle back to the brewery industry. If enough breweries get on board, we could see a “Northwest Bottle” become part of our culture.

The conversation continues:

China’s decision has a big impact on recycling in Oregon, and it may take some time for our cities, counties and the recycling industry to respond. The Oregon Association of Recyclers will make sure that productive conversations continue, with the goal of building a stronger industry with the same strong environmental ethic. On November 15th, the Association of Oregon Recyclers will host a forum on the Impacts of the National Sword and future market development ideas. All the big recycling companies and many other interested groups will gather at this event to talk about the future of recycling and share ideas. Pete says that the industry has conversations about recycling and innovation all the time, but it’s been a while since it’s captured public attention. It was public involvement that made Oregon the first in the nation to pass a bottle bill; it just might be public involvement that brings the next generation of recycling to Oregon!



5 Replies to "Reduce, Reuse, Re-think: The future of recycling"

  • Marianne Fitzgerald
    November 7, 2017 (9:13 pm)

    It’s time for Oregon and the US governments to encourage investments in local recycling markets which we used to have before they were undercut by the Chinese markets. In addition to the suggestions above, we need to figure out how to make it easier to “refuse” (as in bringing your own reusable containers to the grocery store, beyond beer and shopping bags). We also need to encourage people to buy recycled paper and plastic whenever we can, such as holiday cards printed on recycled paper at this time of year.

    • Jen Coleman
      November 7, 2017 (9:19 pm)

      Great suggestions! Thank you! Waste increases so enormously around holiday season–it’s the perfect opportunity to make a commitment to cut down on waste.

    • Marilyn McWilliams
      November 7, 2017 (9:42 pm)

      I agree about the refuse option. However, it seems that if the people of China can recycle our cast offs, the smart people in the United States should be able to come up with a way to reuse our waste on this side of the Pacific. It is too easy to turn our cast offs to another part of the world instead of using our ingenuity to come up with better ways to use them here.

  • Mary Lane Stevens
    November 7, 2017 (9:57 pm)

    Around ten years ago, some wonderful outfit held twice-a-year plastics recycling events at which we had to carefully divide our plastics into their numbers and toss them into the appropriate enormous bin. There were helpers there to explain. It was fun! Obviously the recycled results were clean, and I bet China or anyone would accept them. Could that organization come back, like the phoenix? I’d love to save my plastics for 6 months.

  • Chris Hagerbaumer
    November 14, 2017 (5:16 pm)

    For more information, here’s a link to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s web page on this issue:

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