- As municipalities emphasize “zero waste” or sustainable resources, it’s important to advocate for the most impactful systemic changes, said David Allaway with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) during a recent Northeast Recycling Council webinar. That means looking for solutions upstream of the consumer at the point where brands and manufacturers choose climate-friendly materials.
- Oregon DEQ and U.S. EPA research shows that just because a product is “recyclable” doesn’t mean the packaging uses less energy, emits fewer greenhouse gases or produces less waste.
- According to Allaway, a senior policy analyst, it’s time to ask brands to design for “low-impact" instead of just asking consumers and brands to recycle. This means prioritizing material options that have the lowest greenhouse gas emissions, lowest energy use and overall most limited effects on the environment.
When it comes to encouraging sustainable resource use, the Oregon DEQ has noticed a heavy emphasis on “recyclability" in recent years. Municipalities encourage residents to recycle (and compost), companies are urged to manufacture products that are recyclable or compostable and state policymakers are increasingly making it a priority.
Based on the agency's work, aiming for recyclability doesn’t always achieve the ultimate goal of reduced life cycle impacts. Larger and more consequential adjustments will be necessary. The true intention is to create solutions that inflict the least amount of environmental damage. “Recycling and composting only are no better than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," said Allaway.
Testing for the environmental impact of a product means assessing how many finite resources it consumes. “This is, in essence, a budgeting exercise,” Allaway said. Sometimes, the overall impact of different materials counter the stereotype that the recyclable option is always better.
Allaway illustrated this point with a DEQ study comparing the environmental impacts of different water bottles. Single-use bottles recycled at a rate of 80% were less harmful across the board than single-use water bottles sent to disposal. Reusable water bottles refilled with tap water were drastically less impactful than either of the single-use versions.
“You may have difficulty seeing them,” Allaway said of the comparatively tiny impacts reusable bottles have on energy use, human respiratory health and other factors, "because they are almost zero, relative to the impacts of drinking water from a single-use PET bottle, whether it's disposed of or recycled."
An EPA study of various coffee containers concluded more surprising low-impact results. The agency compared the energy use, CO2 emissions and overall waste generated by three kinds of coffee containers: A steel can, a plastic tub and a non-recyclable flexible pouch. In all three environmental impact categories, the pouch required the lowest amount of resources. Internal DEQ research has also concluded similar results for some other products. It can be hard to accept that sometimes, the least harmful option is the one that goes into the trash, Allaway said. “We sat with that discomfort for many years.”
However, facing that manufacturing reality would alleviate two issues that recyclability-focused efforts struggle with. Right now, emphasizing the need to recycle or compost puts the ultimate responsibility on consumer actions, Allaway said. Consumers feel pushed into “wishcycling" — tossing all kinds of products in the recycling bin in the hopes that the container will dodge the landfill or incinerator, a process that contaminates other valuable materials.
By asking for “low-impact” products, that would relieve consumers of some of their responsibility and put more of the burden on manufacturers. Asking for low-impact could also encourage some redesign and extended producer responsibility, a requirement that Allaway noted most other nations with advanced infrastructure already have.
Though it seems like a shift, it’s simply time to ask for product information that is likely already available. “Many in industry already know what the environmental impact of their products is,” Allaway said, “but that has rarely been exposed.”
Oregon is also pursuing transparency with industries it interacts with. In January of this year, the city of Portland started requiring cement manufacturers to provide Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) on their product. The EPDs, like nutrition labels but for environmental accountability, will disclose the product's carbon footprint. In 2021, the city plans to set maximum acceptable environmental impact levels for locally-made cement, which manufacturers will eventually have to meet if they want to be on the list of pre-approved cements for use in Portland.
As for what some products will look like once they adapt to meet low-impact standards, Allaway said, “we won’t know until we ask."
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that a DEQ study referenced single-use bottles made from 80% PCR resin, versus single-use bottles recycled at a rate of 80%. The story has also been updated to clarify certain comments.