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Recycling: first step in rethinking sustainability.

Byline: JULIE DANIEL and LANCE ROBERTSON For The Register-Guard

IMAGINE AN ELECTION in which more than 90 percent of the population voted. Now imagine that all those voters actually agreed on the issue they were voting for. Impossible? Not in Lane County. Every week, nine of every 10 households "vote" for recycling by separating plastic, paper, cardboard and cans from their trash. Recycling has become our most popular civic activity, transcending gender, age and income levels, political ideologies or religious beliefs. A countywide system of recycling depots, urban drop sites and curbside pickup service in every community with more than 4,000 residents has made the chore of recycling easy and convenient.

So we do it - to the tune of 3.66 pounds daily for every Lane County resident.

This is a remarkable success story: Once thought of as an activity for environmental utopians and zealots, recycling now is as mainstream as brushing your teeth or watching television. It is ingrained on our collective consciousness. So accustomed are we to recycling that we gasp in horror when out-of-town friends or family casually toss a can in the trash. Even more remarkable is how far we've come.

Thirty years ago, the only recyclers were scrap metal dealers and conservation-driven nonprofit organizations like BRING that operated with missionary zeal. Today there are dozens of businesses in Lane County that collect, process or manufacture a product using recycled materials. Many equipment dealers, trucking companies and other businesses benefit from the recycling industry. Utilizing waste has become a significant economic driver, one that is a cornerstone of the sustainable environment and economy we strive for.

Earlier this month, Oregonians observed Recycling Awareness Week, which gave us a convenient excuse to reflect. What part does recycling play in a sustainable society? What can we be proud of? What still needs to be done? We can take pride in having made significant progress in utilizing discards. In 1971, the first year BRING operated, 450 tons of material were collected. In 2000, Lane County recyclers collected 216,532 tons.

Ordinary citizens understand that recycling saves energy and natural resources. For example, the 24,622 tons of corrugated cardboard and 11,579 tons of newspapers recycled in 2000 saved enough energy to power 8,812 average households for a year!

We can feel good that recycling has become a significant factor in our local economy. Sorting and processing recyclable materials supports 10 times the number of jobs that landfilling does. More than 500 people in Eugene-Springfield now are employed in collecting, sorting and recycling discards, with hundreds more working at companies that make products with recycled materials.

We also can be proud that while national recovery rates have slipped, Lane County has made progress. Fifty-two percent of discards are now recycled.

That being said, we need to do more than recycle to achieve sustainability. More goods are being manufactured with little or no regard for their end-of-life disposition. The number of electronics, plastics, one-use disposable products - consumer goods that end up with no place to go but the landfill - has exploded in the last 30 years. It takes a very savvy and committed consumer to avoid all the overly packaged and poorly designed stuff. Industry must be pressured to produce goods that use resources economically and are recoverable when their useful life is over.

Consumers, too, must start thinking in new ways. Recycling is a good thing, but doesn't it make more sense to use something over and over again, or better yet, reduce your use of materials in the first place? Why buy new when "Hippie Tupperware" - Nancy's Yogurt tubs - can be had in abundance, for free? Do you really need to print out that e-mail you got from your boss? Flip over those old 10-speed handlebars, screw them to the garage wall, and you've got a perfect garden hose hanger.

Since its inception, BRING's overarching philosophy has been to change the planet for the better, one person at a time. With recycling now "mainstreamed," BRING has refocused its efforts on "reuse" and "reduce." We've made our Reuse Central site on Seavey Loop Road a destination point for smart shoppers looking for anything from windows to a ferret cage to avocado bathroom sets. Now our dream is to develop a new, larger site in Glenwood that will be an imaginasium of reuse, recycling and ideas for sustainable living presented with fun, flair and finesse.

Recycling alone will not help us achieve a sustainable economy and environment. Recycling is only the first step, a Neanderthal on the evolutionary continuum of sustainability: Recycle, reuse, reduce. Getting to the next level will take rethinking, but isn't that what we're so good at in the World Capital of Goofy Ideas, where making running shoes with waffle irons can change a sport forever?

Julie Daniel is general manager of BRING Recycling. Lance Robertson is a member of BRING's board of directors.
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Title Annotation:Columns
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Column
Date:Nov 19, 2002
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