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The Master Recycler Program celebrates 30 years

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A group of twenty people all wearing Master Recycler badges. This is the first all Spanish-language course at Centro Cultural of Washington County.
The Portland Metro area Master Recycler Program began in 1991 and has trained over 2,000 volunteers.
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Leer esta historia en español.

Master Recyclers: Our region’s sustainability volunteer corps

Thirty years after its creation, the Portland Metro area Master Recycler Program has trained over 2,000 volunteers who engage the community on recycling, composting, sustainable consumption, climate protection, environmental justice, saving food, and toxics reduction.

Master Recyclers are a diverse corps of volunteers translating what they’ve learned into projects and messages relevant to their own families, co-workers, communities of faith, and neighbors. BIPOC Master Recyclers bring Black and Indigenous voices and voices of other people of color to the environmental movement. Over twenty-five languages are spoken in the homes of Master Recyclers, who are spread from Welches to Canby, Cornelius to Northeast Portland, and live in high rises, houseboats, trailers, condos, low-income housing, and senior living communities.

Armed with knowledge, outreach techniques, and resources, trained Master Recycler volunteers commit to thirty hours of community engagement, though many continue to volunteer, logging hundreds of hours. They volunteer through individual projects and with the program’s thirty partner organizations to run repair events, celebrate creative reuse, advocate to stop plastics pollution and climate change, improve access to recycling at multifamily communities, and stop food from going to waste.

How the program works

Two people stand outside, near a tipped over recycling bin on top of a tarp laid over the ground. The people sort the recyclable items from non-recyclable items.

The Master Recycler program is housed at the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and run by long-time BPS staff member Lauren Norris, but reaches beyond the City of Portland: It’s a regional partnership between Oregon Metro, the City of PortlandClackamas CountyWashington County, and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality

Each year, three eight-week Master Recycler trainings are offered, rotating location through Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties. The Master Recycler Program also partners with local community organizations to conduct the Community-Design program. This program provides resources, training, a workforce, and project development for community-driven initiatives. The program partners with communities of color, low-income communities, people who are linguistically isolated, and multifamily communities. Specific communities come together as a group and design sustainability projects that meet their own goals and aspirations.

It all began back in 1991

The Master Recycler Program is a story about an idea that was planted and tended to by a handful of volunteers, and then the idea grew to become a thriving movement. A group of community activists from the non-profit Recycling Advocates became captivated with the idea that members of the community, armed with knowledge and resources, have the power to inspire their peers to take action. They felt community connection was the most important ingredient in making change.

Recycling Advocates borrowed Seattle’s Master Composter Handbook and partnered with Oregon State University Extension to develop a volunteer training course. In 1991, in a church basement in downtown Portland, the first cohort studied the three R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle) and aimed to change how we all consume.

If you do a web search for “Master Recycler Program” today, you’ll find programs throughout the state of Oregon and beyond. Cities from all over the country have requested information about how to start a Master Recycler program in their area. There are Master Recycler programs in Madison, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Flagstaff, and Portland, Maine. Almost all of them borrowed the Portland area’s program lessons and made them their own.

A Master Recycler volunteer stands smiling, wearing an orange vest and holding an umbrella. In the background is a large heap of yard debris being turned into compost.

What the future holds

2020 saw a rapid shift to virtual classes, which have continued through 2021. Before that, the program had started offering classes co-designed with community groups. More changes may come as the program evaluates what’s working well and what could be improved. The goal is to reexamine how things are done to ensure that programs meet core values such as resource conservation, racial equity, environmental justice, climate protection, and sustainable materials management.

Find more information about the program at www.masterrecycler.org.