Oregon Loves Recycling (and we can keep on loving it)!

Many Master Recyclers wrote and called this month wanting a response to the op-ed piece in the New York Times that claims that recycling is a waste of time. I shared a number of links that I also posted on Facebook. However, I wasn’t going to write a newsletter article myself. My inclination is to ignore these inflammatory stories, because I think we all know that there is value in recycling when it is done right. Ninety-five percent of people in the metro area consider themselves recyclers. We feel that it’s the right thing to do. Don’t give the guy who wrote the piece more attention than deserved.

But then I was thinking that this was an opportunity to talk about how great recycling is here in our state—and how we can make it even better.

You will recall from one of our most popular speakers in the course, DEQ’s David Allaway, that “…recycling is a great return on our investment. There are few other energy savings programs in the state as effective as recycling.” In the DEQ statement linked below, he states, “Recycling conserves resources (including energy) and reduces pollution (including greenhouse gases). While most Oregonians (and Americans) don’t enjoy the privilege of flying to London, every household and business in Oregon has materials that can be recycled. In fact, the greenhouse gas benefits of recycling by Oregonians in 2010 is almost equal to the global emissions of all air travel by Oregonians to all destinations (not just New York or London) in that same year.”

Patty Moore, president of Moore Recycling Associates Inc., a consulting and business management firm established in 1989, puts it this way: “No natural system evolves without the re-utilization of resources. There is no waste in nature, and it’s time for our own industry and society to take a page from that ecological playbook.” Along with the environmental benefits, she points out the fact that thousands of recycling businesses are thriving and millions of U.S. workers are employed in the industry.

The links below will tell you the op-ed piece was uninformed, but my biggest complaint is that it’s not constructive.

David Allaway and Patty Moore and the many more dedicated individuals, governments and businesses who care about recycling are not without critique of the system. But they offer informed critique, because they understand the importance of fine-tuning the system so that recycling can be even more effective.

For instance, David Allaway points out a new approach in Oregon that will provide local program managers a more refined understanding of the relative environmental benefits of different waste recovery programs, methods and materials. Oregon’s Senate Bill 263 (passed in 2015), among other changes, directs Oregon to begin calculating local waste recovery rates not only on the basis of tons of material (where all materials are treated the same) but also environmental outcomes, such as energy savings. So we will be able to better compare environmental benefits of recycling plastic versus paper, metal versus food.

As Patty Moore states, “recycling is not dead,” it just needs an upgrade. She points out that the change in materials from predominantly paper to predominantly containers has not yet resulted in upgrades to sorting equipment at Material Recovery Facilities (MRFs). The result is material loss and contamination. But she sees modernization and expansion of programs as promising signs that the recycling industry will thrive.

We all can do a lot to keep recycling at its best

  • Reduce and reuse first.
  • Buy recycled content products and close the loop.
  • Put only the materials that are on the accepted lists and properly prepare them for curbside recycling and composting.
  • Support efforts to improve MRFs so  all the materials get to the markets that will turn them into something new.
  • Support the bottle bill to increase recycling and provide more streamlined materials to our domestic recyclers.

Some Master Recyclers fear that this op-ed is going to undo your important work in building trust in recycling. I am not worried. One bad egg can undo much. But it cannot undo the power of 1,400 dedicated community volunteers. People will soon forget the op-ed piece (or maybe never even read it). Master Recyclers will continue to be the neighbor who people go to for good information.

Here are some articles that directly respond to the New York Times op-ed:

And because it is clear that this New York Times op-ed contributor has a life-long vendetta against recycling, I thought I would include the originally well documented response by the Environmental Defense Fund to his op-ed piece in 1996.


—J Lauren Norris