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Plastics Container Recycling in Oregon: A Success, But for How Long?

Oregon has a well earned reputation for recycling dating back to 1971 when the state enacted the United States' first bottle deposit law, requiring refundable deposits on beer and soft drink containers. Curbside recycling followed in 1983, but the state did not explicitly address the recycling of plastic containers until 1991, when the Oregon legislature enacted the Rigid Plastic Container Recycling Law (Recycling Law), Oregon Revised Statute (OR. Rev. Stat.) §§ 459A.650-459A.665. By 1993, two years before the Recycling Law's initial compliance date, the state had already exceeded the mandatory 25 percent plastic container recycling rate, and has done so every year thereafter. Nevertheless, overall plastics recycling in Oregon continues to lag significantly behind glass, metal and paper. Moreover, the state has again missed its 50 percent solid waste recovery goal, ensuring that it will continue reviewing all plastic recycling rates for the foreseeable future.

The Recycling Law was enacted as part of the Oregon Recycling Act of 1991, which set a state-wide 50 percent waste recovery goal for all waste and overhauled the curbside recycling program. In 1983, the legislature had not found the need to address plastics in its initial curbside recycling programs, focusing instead on newspapers, glass, and tin, but as plastic use and disposal in the state increased, it sought to impose plastic reuse and recovery targets as well.

The Recycling Law required that by Jan. 1, 1995, all rigid plastic containers between eight ounces and five gallons sold or offered for sale in the state must contain either 25 percent recycled plastic or a plastic resin that is recycled at a rate of at least 25 percent; or must be reused at least five times. A rigid plastic container is defined as "any package composed predominantly of plastic resin which has a relatively inflexible finite shape or form. . . . and that is capable of maintaining its shape while holding other products," thus excluding plastic films and other plastic products.

Significant quantities of plastic also are potentially excluded from the Recycling Law's recovery requirements under exemptions for containers that: contain drugs, medical devices, medical food or infant formula; are destined for shipment out of state; are tamper-resistant; or have been reduced by at least 10 percent when compared with the packaging used for the same product by the same packager five years earlier. In addition, the Oregon Legislature passed Senate Bill 279 in 1995, which inserted Section 459A.660(f) into the Recycling Law, thereby adding non-beverage food containers to the list of exempt containers.

Under the Recycling Law, packaging manufacturers must affix a code indicating the resin used to produce each rigid plastic bottle or rigid plastic container. In addition, they must document and retain, on-site, proof that the regulated containers either meet or exceed the recycled content or recycling rate requirements, or qualify for one of the exemptions from the Recycling Law. Product manufacturers, for their part, must retain the written certification received from package manufacturers that the rigid plastic containers comply with the recycled content or recycling rate targets.

Ironically, the Recycling Law has never been enforced. Although scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 1995, the legislature delayed enforcement until Jan. 1, 1996, to allow the food packaging industry time to implement the newly imposed requirements. Thereafter, Section 459A.660(7) provides that enforcement may not begin until a year after the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality determines that the aggregate rigid plastic container (RPC) recycling rate falls below 25 percent. Moreover, should the state determine that the aggregate RPC recycling rate equals or exceeds 25 percent, packaging and product manufacturers would be exempt from the Recycling Law's plastic content and recordkeeping requirement.

In fact, Oregon's RPC recycling rate has consistently exceeded 25 percent since 1993, mostly due to beverage container recycling rates near 90 percent. However, total plastic recycling in the state has lagged significantly behind other materials. In its 2003 report to the legislature, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (ODEQ) noted the state's total plastic recovery rate was less than 10 percent, compared to 63 percent for paper, 65 percent for glass and 46 percent for metal, and only accounted for one percent of the total materials recovered.

One factor is that total plastic waste disposed in landfills continues to outpace plastic recycling. Other factors ODEQ identified include the prohibitive cost of recycling in rural areas and the low, inflation-reduced value of bottle deposits. ODEQ's 2003 Report to the Legislature on the Solid Waste Management Program did not propose any changes to the current plastic waste management laws, but such changes are popular with the state's environmental advocacy groups. Past proposals, which may resurface if the state again misses its solid waste recovery goal, include: adding non-carbonated beverages containers, such as water, wine or milk to the state's bottle deposit law; increasing the rigid plastic container recycling rate; or requiring that municipalities implement the currently optional recycling programs for commercial enterprises.