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February 2004

Oregon Plastics Rate Dips; Concern Over Recycled Content Law

Oregon’s recycling rate for rigid plastic containers (RPC) has declined in 2002 to the point that it may not make the 25% recycling rate required under the state’s 1991 recycled content law. Preliminary figures indicate that recycling of RPCs declined from 15,534 tons in 2001 to about 12,430 tons in 2002, which is 24% lower. Overall preliminary plastic recycling numbers are down by 3% from last year.

Observers suggest there are several reasons for the decline in plastics recovery. Among them are the recent introduction of reverse vending machines and the growing trend of mix-material collection.

The recycling rate for RPCs has always remained well above 25% in Oregon, in part because of the state bottle deposit, and because most programs are collecting most RPCs. The 2001 recycling rate was estimated at 31.4%; the lowest rate was 27.1% in 1993.

Oregon’s law, like California’s SB 235, requires that if manufacturers do not meet the 25% overall rate, then individual manufacturers are on the hook to use 25% post-consumer recycled content in all RPCs, or source-reduce 10% over five years, or make them reusable.

Unlike California, which has amended its law several times, the Oregon law applies to a much broader set of containers. There is an exemption for food, medical food, and drugs. However, there are no exemptions for beverages, various clamshells, DOT hazardous materials and cosmetics as there is in California. Also, companies cannot average their recycled content across the entire company line of products in order to comply.

In order to determine the recycling rate for RPCs, the state uses not only the state annual recovery survey, but also it performs a waste composition study. The study actually pulls every fourth container, cleans it, removes other residue, and re-weighs to subtract items (left over contents, labels, caps, etc.) that are not counted as RPCs under the law. The residue has increased from about 18% to 22% in the last few years.

For 2002, RPCs went from 1.51% of the waste stream to 1.71% by weight, but overall generation of waste declined a bit because of the recession, sources noted.

However, material that is recycled is not tested for residue - the state presumes about 5% of what is collected will be residue on containers that go for recycling.

Since it will be “close” to the 25% rate for 2002, Peter Spendelow with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality tells SRLU that his department will probably have to go back and study actual residues from recovered containers to get a more accurate figure.

Unlike California, where staff recommends actions to the Integrated Waste Management Board, all decisions in Oregon are left to the DEQ staff on this program.

Spendelow says that if the result is close, within a margin of error, the state will not likely attempt to enforce the recycled content part of the law, as that is staff-intensive. Spendelow acknowledges that there is not currently adequate staff to fully enforce this law on all companies potentially affected.

However, if the rate is obviously below 25%, he says the state will move to enforce the RPC provisions. For example, he suggested they would look at companies using containers that are exempt under California’s law but not Oregon. The Oregon law does not require companies to keep records on recycled content for years the 25% recycling rate was met, nor try to enforce the law in arrears as in California.

Once it is determined the rate has not been met, the state must wait 12 months to start enforcing the law, and companies need only show compliance for that waiting period year. For example, if the 2002 rate fell below 25%, companies would only have to show they used recycled material in 2004, and the state would start enforcing in 2005.

California has attempted to enforce its recycled content law on about 1,500 companies, and is still struggling with some firms to get full cooperation. California currently meets the 25% overall recycling rate because the state expanded its bottle redemption program to cover most containers. However, attempts to expand Oregon’s historic bottle deposit law have failed.

Covered containers: Any plastic container with the equivalent of holding eight ounces up to five gallons, sold in the state, even to commercial enterprises. This includes plastic bottles, boxes, baskets, crates, trays, and flowerpots sold containing a product.

The law does not cover removable lids, labels, bags, films or over wraps, or tamper-resistant parts of the package.

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