In a large, noisy warehouse along an ordinary industrial road in Clackamas, Metro council members and staff don hard hats and reflective vests — preparation for a glimpse into recycling’s future.
Their guide, Dave Claugus, vice president at Pioneer Recycling, brought them to see his recycling robots in action. Housed under green metal hoods, the robots’ articulated arms resemble something out of a sci-fi movie.
“They are an experimental investment,” Claugus says of his company’s two robotic sorters. “There were maybe a dozen installed nationwide at start of the process.”
The robots were purchased in part with funds from Metro’s Investment and Innovation Grants program. Claugus says there is a continual learning curve for the machines as they recognize new or different items and analyze the best ways to pick them up.
According to Claugus, the robots increased their speed over several months to pick up 45-60 items per minute. That’s up to 33 percent better than their best human counterparts.
Shifts in global markets continue to fuel local recycling evolution
After relying on China for years to separate mixed recyclables, countries around the world got a wake-up call — China no longer wanted to take mixed recyclables and the trash that often came with them. Starting in January 2018 the Chinese government banned imports of mixed plastics and paper.
So, these days, facilities like Pioneer Recycling are making changes to the ways they sort materials and remove unwanted trash before they can be sold to recyclers. Some have hired more workers. Pioneer has turned to technology to help.
These changes will make the recyclables marketable to a broader range of companies in North America and overseas.
And this effort is helped if all of us recycle the right way. When people toss things into recycling bins that don’t belong there, they cause problems for the facilities responsible for receiving, separating, and preparing material for recycling.
“Wishful recycling is still an issue,” Claugus tells the group. “And plastic bags still are the number one contaminant.”
Sharing responsibility for our products can improve our system
More efficient sorting is only one piece of the recycling puzzle.
Pam Peck, Metro policy and compliance manager, says even the best home recycling practices and government-run collection programs are only a small part of the picture.
“We are less than two percent of the country’s population as a state. And it’s an international system of commodities and manufacturing,” Peck says. “Most of it’s not under our control.”
Packaging materials and products are evolving at a faster rate than our nation’s patchwork recycling system can keep up with.
“A key question now is, ‘What is the role for producers?’” Peck says, “Companies are putting labels on these things that lead people to believe they’re recyclable, when they may or may not be recyclable where we live.”
Scott Cassel, Founder and CEO of the Product Stewardship Institute, agrees. In the absence of national recycling standards, he suggests that corporations can play a greater part in how we recycle.
Product stewardship is when manufacturers take responsibility for managing their discarded products and packaging. This includes helping cover recycling costs, which can motivate manufacturers to design products that can be more easily recycled.
“These programs exist all over the world actually,” Cassel says. “So we know these systems work.”
In the U.S. today, there are more than 115 product stewardship laws in 34 states. Here in Oregon, we have four.
Our laws established the collection and recycling of empty bottles, used paint and discarded electronics. And Oregonians soon will have a way to safely dispose of unused medications.
Currently, Metro is advocating for the Oregon Legislature to pass a statewide bill in its 2020 session to create a stewardship program for the collection and safe disposal of discarded mattresses.
Similar programs in California, Connecticut and Rhode Island help recycle over 1.5 million mattresses annually. Materials like wood frames, steel springs and foam fillers are separated and processed to make new products including metal appliances and pet bedding.
Many other products that are difficult to recycle could be handled with product stewardship efforts.
“We feel there is likely broad public support for a [product stewardship] policy focused on paper and plastic packaging,” Peck told the Metro council during a December work session on recycling. “That’s about 40 percent of the waste in most of our households— things like junk mail and all the plastic boxes and bags.”
Other policy changes and expanding access are part of the solution
“I really appreciate going bold. It’s what we need to do.” Metro Councilor Shirley Craddick said in response to staff proposals for tackling greater Portland’s waste and recycling challenges. “Hopefully the state legislature will help us with this. But if not, I’m more than glad for us to support taking action regionally.”
Over the next few years Metro, together with local governments, industry stakeholders and community members, will be rolling out changes to the recycling system aimed at reducing waste while expanding services.
Metro council will look at Portland’s single-use plastic policy — requiring the city's food service businesses to provide plastic straws, utensils, stirrers, condiment packages only when a customer requests them — as one policy area potentially worth building upon.
“In terms of developing a policy for single use items, I’m generally supportive,” Metro Councilor Christine Lewis said during the December work session. “Although, looking at the straw roll-out, particularly from the perspective of having friends in the service industry, there were a lot of lessons learned.”
Lewis wants to partner with those in the food industry as well as human service agencies. “I think we really need to learn about the challenges more broadly than just the traditional restaurant setting that those of us with good intentions start with,” she says.
The Metro Council also is interested in ensuring the recyclability of food take-out packaging and expanding collection options for other types of products.
“People don’t have anywhere to take their hard-to-recycle stuff,” says Roy Brower director of Waste Prevention and Environmental Services, the department at Metro that is responsible for overseeing the garbage and recycling for greater Portland.
“We could work with grocery stores, multifamily housing units — and start to create places around the region where they could drop off their plastics,” Brower says. And he says people want assurance that items they drop off really are getting recycled.
Conversations around this idea are still in the early stages. But, in the future, residents may be able to bring things — like Styrofoam and some hard-to-recycle plastics that can’t go in the recycling bin — to a Metro depot or mobile collection site.
And people living on the west side will be able to bring their discarded materials to a new Metro transfer station without having to drive to Oregon City or Northwest Portland.
Currently, Metro runs Metro Central and Metro South. There, the general public can drop off loads of discarded materials that workers sort — the trash from the recycling.
Metro plans to open a new transfer station in Cornelius sometime in the next few years. A third facility is good news to Dele Oyemaja, co-chair of Metro’s Committee on Racial Equity and resident of Washington County.
His family recently did a house cleaning. And they had to hire a private hauler to take away some children’s furniture and small appliances — things with some recycling value. “They charged me $275,” he says, “many people can’t afford that.”
“I think a transfer station on the west side is a wise decision,” he says. “And an issue of equity, cost and affordability.”