David Allaway, senior policy analyst in the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality’s Materials Management Program, has helped create and progress Oregon’s sustainable materials management policy and programs.  David’s plenary session Oregon’s Journey to Sustainable Materials Management: Why, What and How will provide perspective as Iowa develops its own solid waste vision plan.

The Iowa Recycling Association recently worked with David on a Q&A to give conference attendees a preview of what they’ll learn at his sessions:

What drew you to work in solid waste management field?

I came of age in the late 1980s, at the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, when global warming first captured national attention, medical waste was washing up on beaches, the Mobro garbage barge spent a summer looking for a disposal site and my home state of Oregon was torn apart in a debate about the fate of our last, old-growth forests. I saw all of these issues as related, and the waste management hierarchy of “reduce, reuse, recycle” a potential antidote to the problems. I picked up a college internship at a recycling consulting firm (previously owned by Jerry Powell) and have been working in the field ever since.

How is sustainable material management (SMM) different than traditional solid waste management system?

SMM is a big tent that includes traditional solid waste management but also addresses the other elements of the life cycle of materials: resource extraction, production and consumption. In this bigger view, we aim to accomplish higher-order goals – not landfill avoidance, but resource conservation, pollution reduction and sustainability writ large. Oregon’s SMM vision is that “Oregonians in 2050 produce and use materials responsibly, conserving resources, protecting the environment, living well.” Solid waste management activities can be designed to support these higher order goals, but they aren’t sufficient by themselves. So the first difference involves scope and scale.

Could you expand on that?

Optimizing this bigger system isn’t the same as optimizing the solid waste system. For example, there’s a big push now to mandate that all packaging be recyclable. From a recycling perspective, that makes sense. Recycling is typically more protective of the environment than landfilling, and one barrier to recycling is that some materials aren’t recyclable. If everything was recyclable, we could recycle more, and thereby accomplish more environmental benefits.

That’s the conventional thinking. But in SMM we look more broadly. The higher-order goals of SMM involve reducing pollution and the depletion of natural resources. It turns out that some packaging formats that are really difficult to recycle – such as laminate pouches – have a lower environmental footprint than rigid recyclable options, as long as they’re not littered or leaked into the environment. That’s inconvenient to proponents of narrow but popular interpretations of “zero waste” or “circular economy.” But facts are facts. In SMM, we don’t shy away from inconvenient truths.

How were the initial discussions and adoption of an SMM approach received politically as state policy?

Very well. Before we started initial discussions about adopting SMM as our policy framework, we spent several years learning and sharing information about the environmental impacts of materials through the lens of the full life cycle. That included information about the importance, benefits and limitations of recycling, waste prevention and reuse of materials.  People were comfortable with what the science was telling us. Environmental advocates understood the sincerity of our motivation. Our emphasis on evidence-based decision making, and our willingness to avoid the knee-jerk responses that have characterized materials policy in other states, attracted support from across the political spectrum.

​How has Oregon's approach to SSM policy changed since adoption and initial implementation?

That’s a great question! We’re still learning a lot as we explore the SMM’s new frontiers. I’ll offer five brief examples here and hope to elaborate on some of these at the conference.

  1. We’re now doing some new work that has nothing to do with waste or the waste management hierarchy. For example, we’re helping concrete producers in Oregon reduce the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions associated with their product. As I said earlier, SMM is bigger than just end-of-life management.

  2. We’re placing greater emphasis on the upper tiers of the traditional waste management hierarchy: prevention and reuse.

  3. We’re building a new measurement system that will ultimately change how we measure – and communicate – our goals and progress. We’re moving away from “tons of waste” to actual impacts, such as fossil fuel depletion, water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions.

  4. We’re now more actively questioning some of the deeply-ingrained and popular wisdom about material attributes. I’ll focus on this topic in my Tuesday morning presentation. An example is compostable packaging. Producers are eager to introduce it into the marketplace, but we’ve found that not all compostable materials are the same – some are indeed better for the environment (measured as impacts on water quality, air quality, fossil fuel depletion, climate change, etc.), while others are worse. How do we tell them apart? Producers could tell us, but they aren’t doing so. Further, many appear wedded to a technical standard for compostability that doesn’t consistently predict compostability in real-world compost facilities.

    And then there’s the question of what environmental benefits the composting of packaging actually accomplishes. Some compostable packaging degrades essentially to carbon dioxide and water. It doesn’t produce compost, and as such, advances none of the benefits of compost use, such as water conservation or soil tilth. In these cases, all of the embedded energy and resource is dissipated, making it not “zero waste” but rather “total waste.”

    Just to be clear, we’re not opposed to compostable packaging in all forms, but we’re supporting our industry and challenging the producers and users of compostable packaging to get real about reducing (and disclosing) environmental impacts. We’re also funding reuse systems for food service ware, to get away from single-use items altogether. We’re increasingly standing up for the environment, even when that’s inconvenient and sometimes unpopular.

  5. We’re working closely with our implementing partners, both public and private, to figure out what Oregon’s future recycling system should look like if it’s to be truly consistent with Oregon’s 2050 Vision and the principles of SMM. At a minimum, that includes a greater emphasis on material quality (as opposed to just recycling quantity), and could include greater roles for the producers of materials – who generally seem very eager to brand their materials as “recyclable” but not as eager to share in the responsibility for actually recycling those materials in a responsible manner.

What role, if any, can local government play in supporting SMM while addressing ever increasing financial constraints?

Let’s stop for a moment and remember how local governments became burdened with waste management responsibility in the first place. It stemmed from a public health crisis – more than a century ago – that required the sanitary removal of putrescible wastes such as food and manure from urban areas. The waste stream has evolved tremendously since then, yet public policy hasn’t. Local governments have been left holding the proverbial garbage bag. Maybe we should consider how producers might share in the responsibility for managing materials at end of life.

Even without considering extended producer responsibility, we have seen some cities step up with more ambitious programming, sometimes funded through solid waste franchise or administrative fees.

How does SMM programming affect private organizations trying to balance between profits and environmental responsibilities?

Oregon’s 2050 Vision and Framework for Action suggests that achieving sustainability will require that as a society, we travel concurrently in four lanes: foundational actions, voluntary collaboration and partnerships, education and regulation. There are many actions businesses can take today in the first three lanes, but there’s a limit to what well-intentioned businesses can do voluntarily while remaining financially viable. In these cases, regulation may be needed to set new incentives or requirements, while creating a level playing field. It can be difficult for individual states to maintain that level playing field through traditional environmental regulation, as traditional regulation focuses on in-state producers only, sometimes creating financial advantage to competition in other regions. But the scope of SMM is materials produced and used. Setting standards for materials sold into a region maintains that level playing field, and doesn’t penalize local producers relative to competition elsewhere.

Why should states and communities look toward this approach for evaluation of solid waste management policy and practices?

Solid waste programs don’t operate in a vacuum. How we manage our wastes impacts our economy and environment. Good public policy requires we consider the larger system. Even if you don’t embrace the broader scope of SMM, as Oregon has, the fact remains that waste management programs can support – or inhibit – broader social objectives such as equity, well-being, and a clean, healthy environment. SMM calls on us to understand those impacts so we can make decisions that better serve our ratepayers, residents and constituents.