Making the most of our garbage is something Metro is focused on right now. Looking ahead to the expiration of Metro's contracts in 2019 with landfills and companies that truck most of our trash to a landfill 150 miles east of Portland, the region has an opportunity to look at where our garbage goes, what happens to it and whether we want to try new approaches to get more out of the stuff we don't want.
The Portland metropolitan area has set a new record. More than 64 percent of what businesses and residents threw away in 2013 was recovered through recycling, composting or energy generation. That’s called the recovery rate, and this one’s a milestone. It’s the first time the rate has surpassed the regional goal of 64 percent set by the Oregon Legislature.
The numbers were released last week in the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s annual Material Recovery Report.
"Residents and businesses in our region should be proud of the impressive progress we're making," said Metro Council President Tom Hughes.
Rate calculations include credits for operating state-certified waste prevention, reuse and residential composting programs. The report, based on surveys of garbage haulers and recycling and composting companies, also shows the per capita generation of waste has declined 12 percent since 2003.
"People here get it – they want to preserve the region's quality of life for the future, and that means using fewer resources and using them more wisely," Hughes said. "The success we're seeing is largely due to the choices people make every day by buying smarter, using what they buy and recycling what they can."
Recovery record 30 years in the making
The region has long been known for its recycling ethos – with some, like the spoof hit "Portlandia," poking fun at the local obsession with "very important and very specific" recycling. But it wasn't always a part of the DNA here.
The long haul toward the 64.2 percent recovery rate started more than 30 years ago with the Oregon Opportunity to Recycle Act of 1983. This groundbreaking legislation enhanced and expanded the state’s existing private and public recycling infrastructure. It required residential curbside recycling collection in all cities of at least 4,000 people and called for public education programs to make all Oregonians aware of opportunities to recycle – and the reasons for doing so.
Success credited to participation of business and residents, local government-Metro partnership
While Metro is held accountable for reaching state-mandated waste reduction goals for the region, Matt Korot, director of Metro's Resource Conservation and Recovery Program, is quick to acknowledge the commitment of businesses and residents to environmental and economic values associated with recycling.
"People know that recycling conserves natural resources and reduces greenhouse gas emissions," Korot said. "They also get that it's better for the environment and economy to turn what they've used into a new product rather than putting it in a landfill."
Metro works closely with local governments and private sector haulers and facility owners to achieve success. The complex mix of players makes cooperation essential.
That commitment is channeled through a system built on a partnership between Metro and the local governments that manage recycling collection systems and the private companies that provide services.
That's where Dan Blue comes in. Blue manages the Gresham Recycling and Solid Waste Program. His shop regulates private haulers and sets collection service rates and standards for 106,000 Gresham residents and more than 2,500 businesses.
"Hitting this 64 percent recovery benchmark is great news, and testament to the hard work regional partners, residents and businesses have undertaken to increase recycling," Blue said. "We’re excited to continue the work 'upstream' to promote more waste reduction and reuse practices."
Recycle, absolutely. But what about reduce and reuse?
All along the spectrum – from the purchase of a product to what garbage experts call "end of life" – the work is not done. Keeping recovery rates high through recycling and composting is part of that work. So is making thoughtful consumer choices, like buying products made in a manner that supports human and environmental health and resilient communities. It also means increasing what gets reused by making donations of items before they get tossed.
"I'm convinced people want to and can do a better job," Hughes said. "Everyone has a role to play by thinking about their consumption habits, using resources wisely and making the most out of the stuff we don't want."
Toss or recycle? Ask Metro
Update: Over the course of 2014, DEQ adjusted some numbers originally reported in the 2013 report. The adjusted recovery rate for the Portland region was 63.2%, just shy of the 64% goal, but still setting the record for the region's highest recovery rate to date.