The Portland region recovered a record 62 percent of its waste in 2012, according to a new report from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. The region also saw a drop in the amount of waste disposed per person, marking the sixth year of a downward trend.
"Residents and businesses in our region have broken new ground in their commitment to preserve rather than deplete the planet's resources," said Metro Council president Tom Hughes. "Just as we honor our predecessors for their foresight in protecting the Columbia River Gorge and beaches along our coastline, future generations will judge us for our every-day practices that conserve resources and keep this a great place. It's our way of paying it forward."
Waste recovery figures track materials collected at the curb from residents and from area businesses that recycle or compost, as well as some materials collected and burned for energy recovery. The DEQ report, based on the state's survey of garbage haulers and private recycling and composting companies, recorded the Portland region's recovery rate at 62 percent, up from 59 percent in 2011. While the region has consistently had a slight uptick in the recovery rate, 2012 marks the first year that figure has reached the 60 percentile. Rate calculations include points for regional waste prevention programs.
"The state's report shows where we're making progress and also where there's opportunity to do better," said Matt Korot, director of Metro's Resource Conservation and Recovery program. "We saw increases in recovery for some commonly-recycled materials, such as paper, but also growth in newer items such as food scraps and electronics."
Korot said a significant boost in electronic waste recovery can be attributed to Oregon E-Cycles, a statewide program that requires electronics manufacturers to provide free recycling of computers, monitors and televisions.
"The public and private sectors have worked cooperatively to provide convenient and responsible recycling for the growing electronics waste stream," Korot said. "By including the cost of recycling their products in the cost of doing business, manufacturers are making it easier for people to help keep toxics out of the environment; and are helping extract valuable materials to recycle into new products."
An area where Korot sees room for progress is in food waste. According to research conducted by Natural Resources Defense Council, 40 percent of food in the United States goes uneaten.
"We need to focus on reducing waste from the start. Then, ensure that edible, but unused, food gets to people who need it," Korot said.
In 2004, Metro launched the Fork it Over program to try to address food waste, by linking food-producing businesses with food rescue agencies to reduce hunger and waste. Korot noted that, in addition to donating food, there are growing opportunities for businesses in the region to recycle their food waste into high-value compost and energy.
The state's report concludes that recycling efforts of the region's residents and businesses have resulted in significant environmental benefits, including conservation of natural resources, energy savings and greenhouse gas reductions. The benefits of reducing the generation of waste in the first place are even greater.
"While we're making progress, there are still critical things people and businesses in our region can do to improve," Korot said.
In addition to urging people to keep their recycling clean and free of materials that aren't accepted in their community's collection program, Korot hopes residents will "continue to be thoughtful and resourceful consumers" by reducing and reusing to avoid waste.
"Simple actions, like maintaining what you have, borrowing or sharing, buying second hand, and giving gifts of experience rather than stuff, will get people what they need, save them money, reduce clutter and conserve resources," he said.