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Recycling – Are we Doing It Wrong?

With a photo of a blue recycling bucket on it, a recent cover of Willamette Week tells us “You’re Doing It Wrong.” The story reiterates what we already know: Portlanders are very enthusiastic recyclers. Unfortunately, “a large percentage of what Portlanders throw in their bins is actually garbage.” And as a result, “the chief buyer of Oregon’s recycling says what is in our bins is just too filthy to accept.”

It’s worth reading the above mentioned article, “Recycling Is Religion in Portland. But It’s in Crisis Because You’re Doing It Wrong,” and think about what you can do to reduce waste and recycle better.

We actually think about that quite a bit. At our Portland office, we’ve been perfoming annual waste audits since 2007 (and our Silicon Valley Office did its inaugural audit in 2017). In fact, we were the first non-food related business in the Portland to do that audit! As such, we have quite a bit of data on our own waste, which helps us make to make better decisions year after year.

From this year’s data, here are some key things we have learned. See if you recognize these habits at your home or work.

1 – CLEAN-ISH RECYCLING: Our recycling contaminant rate (the amount of trash in recycling) could be dramatically reduced if our recyclable material were cleaner. 100% clean is not required, but get rid of chunks, obvious left-overs, full slices of pizza, etc.

2 – ABOUT COFFEE CUPS pt. 1: The lids and the cups are not recyclable, but the sleeves are.

3 – ABOUT COFFEE CUPS pt. 2: Most coffee shops will fill a reusable cup/travel mug and give you a discount for doing so— helping you avoid the coffee cup disposal rules altogether.

4- GLASS:  Do not throw away (non-broken) glass. It’s pretty heavy, and it’s a pretty big lost opportunity if it goes to the landfill. Glass happens to be very easy to recycle!

5- PLASTIC: Recently, plastic became less recyclable in Portland, so that means more plastic is directly going to landfills. Sometimes this will prove impossible, so we should make efforts use less plastic.

6- IMPROVED SIGNAGE: We did some self-reflection on our recycling data, and we determined our waste signage had gotten a little out-of-date. Recycling regimes change, so we needed a new clear, consistent way to message what goes where in our office. Take a look at our new recycling signage:

Some other notable data points from our audit:

♦ At SERA, our annual total waste per person (recycling, compost, garbage) was 190lbs.

♦ This was the first year that compost outweighed paper as our biggest source of waste (apparently coffee really fuels our creativity, while more “paper” stays on the computer).

♦ Our recycling contaminant rate was 2.09%, which is in the zone that recycling facility operators would like to see so that they can sort it down to be the 0.5% that buyers now expect.

So, I would say we’re doing good – but we can always do better. Indeed, we will all have to do better if we want to come close to at least maintaining the status quo of recycling in our communities.

In efforts to increase what can be recycled, recycling programs went from very simple (we only recycled newspapers when I was a kid) to being a lot more nuanced. This nuance comes from the fact that no two jurisdictions do recycling in exactly the same way. If you have recently moved, or travel a lot—you know what I am talking about.

To help make things easier, I wholeheartedly recommend the age-old adage “When in doubt, throw it out.” That will do nothing less than save our ability to recycle!

One Comment

  1. Shelby Schroeder says |

    Thanks for helping SERA keep its commitment to sustainability, Walter. I’m glad we could collaborate on the new waste signage, and hope it helps our numbers!

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