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Significant recycling bill passes, putting Oregon at the forefront of recycling innovation once again

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SB582, the Recycling Modernization Act, passes; retiring BPS employee Bruce Walker served on the Recycling Steering Committee for the bill.
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It’s not every day that a veteran City of Portland employee retires with a legislative victory under their belt. But BPS’ Bruce Walker did, working hard to make SB582 – the Recycling Modernization Act – a reality before he closed out his career last month with the City of Portland.

For the last two and a half years, Walker participated in the state’s Recycling Steering Committee for the bill. He said it was a tough rulemaking process with Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), but “the bill puts Oregon at the forefront of recycling innovation once again.”

The bill will overhaul Oregon’s outdated recycling system by building on local community programs and leveraging the resources of producers to create an innovative system that works for everyone.

How it works

SB582 creates a “shared responsibility” recycling system, where producers of packaging, paper products, and food service ware will fund necessary upgrades and work to make Oregon’s recycling programs convenient, accessible, and responsible. The bill includes funding to improve recycling sorting facilities and education programs throughout state. In rural Oregon, the bill provides subsidies to get material to sorting facilities.

“It’s a major restructuring of recycling, a watershed moment,” noted Walker. “A lot of credit goes to the committee members and DEQ.”

Key elements of the bill include:

  • Shared responsibility by producers – not just consumers.

  • Increased access to recycling for people who previously didn’t have it, including apartment dwellers and rural area residents.

  • Prevents plastic pollution by ensuring collected plastics are actually recycled.

  • One list for the whole state for what can be recycled, providing clarity and creating efficiencies in recycling operations across the state.

  • Charging producers more for nonrecyclable products to incentivize innovation.

  • Accountability ensured by DEQ and a governor-appointed advisory council.

Recycling in Oregon

In 1971, when Oregon’s exemplary Bottle Bill went into effect, Walker was in high school. Since then, numerous other bills have made it through the legislature, including the Recycling Opportunity Act in 1983, which required all cities with more than 4,000 residents to offer recycling services, and the Materials Management Act (2015), which looks at the life cycle of products.

Recycling in Portland

Bruce Walker headshot
After 34 years with the City of Portland, Bruce Walker retires this summer.

Walker is proud of his 34 years at the City. At the Bureau of Environmental Services under Commissioner Earl Blumenauer in the late 1980s, he helped develop a program that assigned garbage haulers to specific neighborhoods.

“At the time, I had four different haulers on my street on different days,” he recalls. “Organizing routes and haulers was the ’moonshot’ of garbage and recycling. It was an amazing level of work to coordinate all the haulers and organize all their routes to be effective.” Mayor Bud Clark was in office when the new rules were adopted in 1991.

In the early 90s, all Portland households were provided two yellow bins to collect paper, steel cans, glass bottles, and some plastics. This was Portland’s first citywide approach to provide curbside recycling service. In 2000, Commissioner Dan Saltzman created the Office of Sustainable Development, which included the Energy Office, Solid Waste and Recycling, and the Green Building Program. In 2008, blue and green roll carts were delivered to residents for recycling and yard waste, respectively. The City also developed a robust voluntary food scraps program for restaurants and grocers to compost food.

But providing food composting for residents was the next solid waste and recycling frontier. In 2011, food composting for residential neighborhoods officially began, with every-other-week garbage and weekly yard waste/food compost and recycling. The new garbage pick-up schedule allowed costs to remain the same even as the new food compost service was added.

“Every year we go in front of City Council to review and approve our rates,” said Walker. “We’re cognizant of the impact of rising costs and proud of the system we created to cut them. In general, the public really understands and supports the recycling and compost system.”

Noting that Portland has won numerous national and state awards for its recycling program, Walker said of his recycling innovation legacy, “My goal was to have a great program for the residents and businesses. It’s not a me thing, it’s a we thing: staff, haulers, and the residents who put their recycling and compost out.”

Other recent innovations include clean fleet requirements for garbage trucks, waste equity initiatives, and the addition of sideguards to garbage trucks to prevent serious injury to cyclists and pedestrians in the event of a collision.

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