Saving the Earth, One Bottle at a Time
April 03, 2019
If the Environmental Studies Program at Lewis & Clark College prepared me for anything, it was to think holistically about complex environmental problems, and how to tackle them with a multi-disciplinary approach. That approach has served me well in the nearly 20 years (!!) since I graduated. An international lens informed my work in China and Vietnam working on coastal and marine conservation. A mathematical and scientific lens helped build the skills I needed to work in environmental economic analysis for a consulting firm in Portland. An equity and public policy lens shaped my time as a state legislator and county commissioner, and how I organized constituents to support pro-environment policies. Now I bring all of that together, and more, to do something most people never think about: reusing and recycling bottles and cans.
As Chief Stewardship Officer for Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative (OBRC), it’s my job to keep Oregon’s bottle deposit and return program successful and relevant nearly 50 years after it’s creation. OBRC is one of Oregon’s best-kept secrets. We are the private, not-for-profit beverage industry cooperative that runs everything to do with Oregon’s bottle deposit program. We collect, manage and distribute the deposits. We pick up all the containers from stores. We sell and service the machines that collect them. We process all the material for recycling. And we run BottleDrop, the centers where you can take back your bottles and cans. Our 500 employees do the dirty work of environmental policy, taking your glass, plastic, and metal containers from the time they leave your hand to when they become something new again.
Why is this important? Oregon generates billions of beverage containers every year. Each one of these containers represents a lot of energy and raw material that goes into making and transporting it, and a potential source of waste if it’s not captured. Most “recyclable” material in the curbside bins ends up in the trash, especially since China shut down recycling imports. Plastic bottles and containers are clogging our oceans and washing up on beaches across the world. And in most places in the United States, governments are struggling with what to do.
By contrast, in Oregon, 90% of all containers sold get returned. When they do, they get processed right here in Oregon, and all of them are turned into new material in the United States. All that waste stays where it should be – in line to become new, high quality packaging. But not only is the deposit program great for the environment, many families also use it to teach their kids about responsible stewardship of our waste, and about how to save a dime at a time. Many low-income families even rely on it for income.
But we can do better than recycling. One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about my time at OBRC is creating the new refillable bottle program at BottleDrop. Instead of crushing and melting glass bottles, we take reusable ones and wash them. We give the sanitary bottle back to the brewery, and it can be used up to 25 times. You can already find these bottles in the beer and cider aisle at your local store. You might not notice it when you buy it, but every time you use one of these bottles, you’re making a big difference for the environment.
At Lewis & Clark College, the Environmental Studies Program taught me how to think creatively about big global issues, and how to solve them right here in Portland. I’m having a lot of fun putting that education to use, and I’m thrilled the program is thriving.