On May 11, ISRI’s Pacific Northwest Chapter, which represents the recycling industry in the states of Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and the Canadian province British Columbia, submitted comments to the Oregon Truth in Labeling Task Force’s proposal pertaining to the state’s packaging and printed paper extended producer responsibility (EPR) model program.
The Truth in Labeling task force is part of Oregon’s Plastic Pollution and Recycling Modernization Act, which was passed in 2021 and went into effect Jan. 1, 2022. The task force was established to study and evaluate “misleading or confusing claims regarding the recyclability of products made on a product or packaging.” The task force will submit a final report and recommendations for legislation to the legislature by June 1.
As a member of the Oregon Recycling System Advisory Council, Vinod Singh, outreach manager at Far West Recycling, has been following the task force since it was established. “The goal is to limit ‘wish-cycling,’ we’re trying to clean up the stream of materials coming into our facilities,” he says. “People may think something is recyclable just because it has the chasing arrows symbol, the task force is concerned with how to change the labels, so they still have the necessary identification codes but don’t indicate they are recyclable if they aren’t.”
ISRI asked its paper, plastics, and MRF committees for comments on the task force’s proposal, as well as comments from the Pacific Northwest chapter. “We were able to get input from members across commodities,” says Danielle Waterfield, ISRI’s chief policy officer. Chapter president Jacqueline Lotzkar and past president Sean Daoud also provided input along with Singh. “It was a collaborative effort, and the first time ISRI has put together comments on EPR legislation post-enactment of the law,” Waterfield adds.
In its comments, ISRI recommended the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to reevaluate its existing definitions associated with recycling within the solid waste statutes and regulations. “I think in Oregon and other states there’s a disconnect between recycling operations and waste operations,” says Daoud, vice president & treasurer/co-owner of PNW Metal Recycling. “One of the biggest disconnects is between handling recycled commodity-grade material and handling waste.”
Recyclable materials are often comingled with waste and need to be separated into commodity grades. “When the materials are comingled, some states view all of it as waste,” Daoud says. “But it’s not. It’s a handling of recyclable items that just need to be separated, they’re comingled for ease of transportation and sorting.”
According to ISRI’s comments, the current definitions of recycling don’t reflect modern day industry practices. In some cases, the definitions are contradictory and could hamper the task force’s efforts. “There’s confusion surrounding what is and isn’t recyclable,” Daoud says. “We take time to educate but mistakes can happen. We’re receiving these materials at the end, and we’d prefer to take the load and divert as much as possible from landfills rather than reject the load entirely.”
ISRI’s comments note how technology can help expand the scope of recyclable materials. As sorting and equipment technology advances and new processing methods become viable, a formerly difficult product to recycle can become a valuable commodity. Consumer demand also plays a role in innovation in packaging design and in processing and markets for recyclable materials. If a type of packaging is labeled as unrecyclable its very likely it will go to the landfill.
“There’s a misconception that everything that gets discarded is waste but some of those are valuable materials,” Daoud says. “We’re paying to take the materials and we get paid to sell and process the materials, [these comments] are about creating more clarity in the law.”
ISRI also recommends the task force consider further coordination in situations where collection lists do not align between different states. Banning any language except for a “do not recycle” symbol could create conflict between laws in different states and confusion among residents.
“We all have the same household items, we produce the same type of products,” Daoud explains. “Having inconsistences in the law doesn’t help build an efficient circular economy that we’re looking to create, instead it creates blurred lines and misunderstandings.”
An important way to break through the blurs is to actively engage with the elected officials drafting the laws. “Recyclers are the ones processing the materials,” says Lotzkar, vice president of Vancouver-based Pacific Metals Recycling International. “We need to have a voice to ensure the physical processing is being considered when laws are being created and enacted.”
Having a voice gives recyclers a chance to shape the laws that will directly impact them. “As the industry that handles the material, we have the first-hand knowledge about how things are working while the people making the laws are often on the outside looking in,” Singh says. “We need to share our knowledge with them in a collaborative process, so we don’t end up with laws that are one sided.”
EPR has the potential to impact recyclers across the country and across commodities. Daoud, Lotzkar, and Singh recommend recyclers pay attention to the legislation that’s already out there regardless of whether it’s been introduced in their states yet. “As EPR takes root in more states, it’s helpful to see what those bills look like and figure out what you think would work for your own area,” Singh says. “In Oregon, there were a lot of conversations about what the EPR model should look like, so be aware of your blind spots, and when you’re presenting your case, be aware of what other people are looking for too.”
Lotzkar agrees. “By following EPR models being passed in other states, should recyclers get the call [that legislation has been introduced in your state] they can make recommendations based on what has proven to work well within the industry.”
Engaging on one issue, like EPR, opens the door for recyclers to discuss other concerns with legislators, Daoud says. Especially once recyclers recognize that one problem is likely connected to or impacted by a variety of other issues. “Every law or change has unintended consequences on different issues,” he explains. “Looking at the global picture is important. [Legislators and regulators] want to hear from us what else is going on, so, being engaged opens the opportunity to discuss other areas and make positive changes for our industry on many issues.”