Betty Patton is an environmental consultant with Environmental Practices, LLC, in Portland, Ore., specializing in solid waste, recycling, and waste prevention. She is also the special projects chair on the board of the Association of Oregon Recyclers.

Tuesday, 4 Sep 2001

PORTLAND, Ore.

A three-day weekend makes for a four-day workweek. It sounds nice, but I have more than five days of work to cram into that space. Luckily, I love my work. This week I’ll be doing half paid work and half volunteer, all working toward the same end: waste prevention.

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I am a consultant, and my latest project involvement is the Western Electronic Product Stewardship Initiative (WEPSI). The organizers of this initiative are representatives from federal, state, and local agencies in eight western states: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington. This project has convened a group of people, representing a variety of perspectives, to discuss the problems and possible solutions for our discarded electronics. My motivation for getting involved with this: An estimated 700,000 new PCs and laptops will be sold in my state alone this year. We already have over a million PCs and 200,000 laptops here in Oregon, and half a million of them will be disposed of this year, with most of those going to landfills. That is 10,000 tons in this small state, and that tonnage includes heavy metals, plastics, and lead. Needless to say, those kinds of numbers got my attention.

So did the idea of product stewardship. This is a fairly new concept in the solid waste management business. Designers and manufacturers invent, create, and market products and materials based on their functionality. Consumers buy these things based on need or want. We discard the remnants of those purchases, and our local governments are responsible for providing the waste collection service and managing and regulating that waste stream. The process of product stewardship allows all of the entities involved in the creation, use, and end-of-life activities to share in the responsibility of waste management. The goal of WEPSI is to encourage design for the environment, to educate users on the benefits of long-lasting, durable products, and to work with nonprofits, schools, recyclers, waste haulers, and local governments to provide the highest possible reuse and recycling opportunities for our discarded electronic equipment.

My afternoon will be spent meeting with some of the people involved in this long-term project. This group has its work cut out for it. Design and manufacture of electronics involves large, multinational corporations. Recycling is usually a very local or regional activity. So this discussion process has to be both global and local. Not an easy task, but an exciting one. We have spent many months planning it with a dedicated steering committee. We have just begun the full discussion with the industry folks, the recyclers, the nonprofits that try to reuse equipment, and the hazardous-material handlers that have to deal with some of the parts. Cross your fingers for a productive process.

Maybe I am interested in this project for my own personal gain. We have four computers in this household/office and enough parts in the basement to build a zillion more. A bearing went out on my CPU fan yesterday. Out of the five fans we had in storage, none of them were compatible with my brand of CPU, so we’ve got to go to our favorite electronics store for a replacement. If everybody’s basement is like ours, we’ve got a material-handling problem on our hands bigger than I can imagine!

In the past, the definition of a durable product was one that had an expected useful lifespan of three years. Computers are approaching a two-year lifespan. On the bright side, I am able to add and replace individual parts as I need them. On the downside, I need to do this more often. Design, marketing, consumption, and disposal are all being addressed in the WEPSI process. There aren’t any easy solutions, but we’re working together to find some.

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Wednesday, 5 Sep 2001

PORTLAND, Ore.

A new day, a new project. Actually, before I start the new project, I have to do some cleanup on yesterday’s. The Western Electronic Product Stewardship Initiative (WEPSI) group that got together yesterday was a fun mix of people, and as a result, I have lots of information to pass on to various folks. One of the new participants in our discussion needed a good contact to recycle his broken monitor and a couple of nonfunctioning VCRs, so I need to find the address and phone number of Quantum Resource Recovery. Another lady in our group was fascinated by the activities of Free Geek, a nonprofit that accepts donated usable computer equipment and uses it to teach volunteers how to troubleshoot, repair, and maintain hardware; how to load and test software; and how to use the systems. In exchange for their time to produce workable systems, these folks get to take home the computer and the knowledge to use it.

It is time to shift gears now for my next project. I am a board member of the Association of Oregon Recyclers. My job on the board is to direct a group of volunteers to plan the content for the association’s annual conference. That process began in January, and the conference starts tomorrow, continuing through Saturday. The conference this year is being held in Eugene, Ore., which is about 100 miles south of Portland. We have a wonderful lineup of sessions this year, but I am a little panicky right now. Are all the speakers still going to show up? Did we forget to properly cover a topic that is of high interest? Are we offering enough variety to appeal to a broad audience? Well, I’ll find out the answers to all of these questions shortly.

Our conference begins with two tours: one of the University of Oregon’s reuse and recycling system (and of some great composting sites), and the other of Lane County’s material recovery facility that sorts the curbside collected material, the facility that sorts paper, the transfer station, and the landfill. A golf tournament is being held at the same time. Remember — you can’t work in the garbage industry and stick to business all the time.

But today, I need to check with all of the conference planners and session coordinators to make sure everyone has what they need. I also need to spend some time preparing for the policy discussion on Saturday. Electronics product stewardship is one of the targeted areas that the organization wants to pursue next year, and I need to prepare some talking points on the subject. After listening to all of the input from local governments, businesses, recyclers, and nonprofits, I believe we can have a lively discussion.

Thursday, 6 Sep 2001

EUGENE, Ore.

The Association of Oregon Recycler’s 23rd annual conference started today in Eugene, Ore. I am the board member who is responsible for the content. No, that is giving me way too much credit. I am the board member that facilitated the meetings of all of the volunteers that contributed the content. That’s more like it.

This is one of the older state recycling organizations in the country, and we’ve come a long way. This is an organization of businesses, waste haulers, recyclers, local governments, educators, and run-of-the-mill tree-huggers. We are all working together, sharing problems, and coming up with ideas to overcome those problems. That is what this annual conference is all about. We highlight new techniques to address waste diversion and waste prevention needs. We also look at old problems in new ways.

I spent my day learning. It was a great opportunity. When you
are in a car for two hours with some really smart people, you better take advantage of that time.

I was with Jennifer Erickson, the Guru of Organics (that is my title for her), so I picked her brain. Oregon’s recovery rate has hit 38.9 percent. To reach our 50 percent goal by 2009, we need to pursue new material waste streams and aggressively pursue existing ones. Food waste represents about 14 percent of the nonrecovered waste stream, and a large percentage of that is edible food. Her goal is to work with grocery stores and restaurants to minimize that edible portion of the waste stream.

Are portions at restaurants consistently too large? Is storage or display at grocery stores inadequate or improper for the product? What can be donated to food banks or nonprofits?

Jennifer created a directory of the region’s organizations that accept food donations and distributed it to groceries and restaurants in the hope that they would develop a relationship with their neighborhood’s charitable organizations. She is also working with lots of local businesses to encourage composting. Some of this can be done on-site, and some businesses prefer that the material be collected and composted remotely. This woman has lots of great ideas and the energy to pursue them all.

Next, we talked about Oregon’s bottle bill. Oregon put a five-cent deposit on sodas and beer 30 years ago. That is the reason that over 95 percent of the containers covered by that deposit are recycled. But it is time we upgraded this bottle bill. When this was enacted, it covered the majority of all single-serving drinks by limiting it to carbonated and malt-based beverages. Now, bottled water is a multibillion-dollar industry. We also have bottled juices, teas, and other noncarbonated beverages, and none of these are covered by our bottle bill. This exclusion results in a much lower recycling rate for those containers. We will have a panel discussion at the conference on Saturday on methods for expanding our deposit system. My preference is for a national bottle bill — a deposit on all single serving beverages, regardless of their recipe. It would make business easier for the distributors, clean up our roadsides, and increase our utilization of valuable resources. But the idea has never gotten out of committee in the U.S. Senate. Never say never.

I must confess that I am writing this diary before my final activity of the day. Tonight, we have a reception at the conference, and I figured that you didn’t want to read the kind of stuff I would write after a few glasses of wine and a couple of hours socializing with garbage people. We can get pretty trashy. So I will end my reality diary for the day and let you imagine what happened at happy hour.

Friday, 7 Sep 2001

EUGENE, Ore.

The day at the Association of Oregon Recycler’s 23rd annual conference began with a talk and slide show entitled “AOR Goes to Russia.” AOR has partnered with Khabarovsk, Russia, to help set up a multifamily recycling program for 50 very large apartment buildings. The infrastructure in Khabarovsk is vastly different from what we have here, but there is a lot that is exportable. For example, education methods need to be slightly tweaked for a different culture, but they still work. Equipment needs are unique. Access to some dumpsters in the Khabarovsk project is a little tight, and many of these dumpsters are kept indoors until pickup time. The containers aren’t emptied on site. They are removed and replaced with empty ones. So hauling and collection require different equipment. Cold weather also has an impact. I could go on. The important thing about this partnership is that we are able to help them and they are educating us.

6?ssia, we got to climb Mt. Everest. Vicariously. Our keynote speaker was Stacy Allison, the first woman to climb the mountain. What a great person and a great motivator. She encourages us to take risks, motivates us to overcome obstacles, and invites us to look ahead and accept failure as part of the process to an end. She got this conference started off on the right foot.

We had planned this conference so that some attendees could come for only one day and get a lot of good information from a variety of sessions. Our targeted audience for Friday was the construction and demolition (C&D) industries. One session for these folks highlighted green building techniques. What does it take to become LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certified? How does this affect the price and the marketability of a building? How are developers addressing the requirement by some governments to have LEED-certified construction for public buildings? There was a lot of good information shared here. The next session for construction and demolition folks dealt with the end of the pipe — the recycling and recovery of materials at the construction site. We got to see pictures and hear stories about the demolition of Seattle’s Kingdome. What a process. Portland’s Brewery Blocks had similar demolition considerations. Both sites are in highly populated urban areas and had maneuverability constraints and safety considerations.

The rest of the day was full of sessions on waste prevention, waste reduction, and recycling. Did you ever wonder why a city will offer and encourage recycling at home and at work, but the minute they have an event at a park, everything gets thrown in the landfill? Well, Oregon’s Race for the Cure, the Oregon Country Fair, and the University of Oregon all have recycling programs in place to reduce the waste at these public events. Planners of these programs got to talk about their successes and their few failures. Another session allowed businesses to share their methods of greening up the work area. One of them told of the ordeal of becoming ISO 14001 compliant. Another talked about The Natural Step and how they are using the guidelines for sustainable practices in their business decisions. One of the companies has in-house Green Teams that are continuously finding more areas to pursue for minimizing waste and toxicity. There is a lot of good work happening out there.

Our conference includes the Compost Council of Oregon. The council had a meeting this morning and presented one of the sessions this afternoon. They had talks on commercial composting, collection, recruiting participants, and product testing. I am always amazed at the science that goes into composting at this scale.

Again today, I am ending my diary early. We have some partying to do tonight. A big dance with a Eugene band called The House, (yep, that’s the house band) and some entertainment by some longtime members of this garbage organization. We will finish up our conference tomorrow and rest for a few days before we start planning next year’s conference in Seaside, Ore.