DEQ’s Vision Quest on the Mountain

Recycling has been an important part of Oregon DEQ’s vocabulary, but a new term — materials management — is about to get top billing in the war against waste.State waste management planners went to a resort on Mount Bachelor in Central Oregon last week on a vision quest. They were on a mission to test out concepts for new approaches to prevent Oregon from becoming buried in garbage even more than it is now.

Mount Bachelor was a fitting location. Several hundred members of the Association of Oregon Recyclers (AOR) were engaged in a conference on sustainability. And you almost — if the mind's’ eye were powerful enough — could see several huge regional landfills in Eastern Oregon and southcentral Washington filling up with garbage trucked, trained and towed through the Columbia Gorge from distant places such as Portland and Seattle. 

AOR’s 34th annual conference drew the leadership of waste regulators and recycling educators from local governments, commercial waste haulers, recycling center operators, recyclable commodity brokers and others. Many of these happy warriors of the waste world have long viewed “waste minimization” and the need for a consumer culture shift in thinking as the right way to tackle the problem. 

Key staff from the state Department of Environmental Quality took the occasion to roll out DEQ’s ideas for updating Oregon’s solid waste management plan. Words such as sanitary landfills and recycling remain important, but they fall to a secondary position in DEQ’s lexicon. DEQ will shift the state’s regulatory focus to “materials management.”

 “Materials management refers to the life cycle of materials as they trace their course through the economy, from raw material extraction to product manufacture, transport, use, source reduction, reuse, recycling, and disposal,” DEQ says in its 2050 vision for managing waste in Oregon. 

The plan is a collaborative product of senior DEQ solid waste management staff working with a 20-member stakeholders advisory committee during the first half of this year. A key advisor to DEQ is Duke Castle, an advocate of the Natural Step. TNS is a non-profit environmental education organization working to build an ecologically and economically sustainable society.

The draft plan puts greater emphasis on the front end of the problem — discouraging production and consumption that is wasteful as a result of inefficient manufacturing and the bad habits of our throw-away society. Following the plan’s début at AOR, the public will have numerous opportunities for comment throughout the summer. The goal is to have a revised plan completed by the end of 2012. 

DEQ’s vision is that “Oregonians are engaged in making better material choices at end of [a product’s] life.”

This thinking is driven by fears about the earth’s limitations of raw materials. The use of these resources is increasing, both here and abroad, DEQ noted. “Our economy is tied to global materials markets and we’re increasingly dependent on non-renewable materials,” the presenters said.  With dependence comes economic and geo-political risks and the rapid rise in material use has led to serious environmental effects,” the panel told the group. 

What’s required is a “cultural norm” that conserves, reuses, repairs and recovers, DEQ said.

For this mountain top meeting, DEQ described its plan from a 30,000-foot perspective, opting to discuss the process of completing its planning rather than describe how such thinking is turned into any new state laws or administrative rules. No legislation is anticipated yet, said DEQ’S David Allaway. DEQ also shied away from specific examples of how materials management program would be implemented. 

It offered a compelling data point for action: To live sustainably, each resident of the United States needs, on average, 19.8 global acres, or 4.4 global acres is needed per person in the world, on average. Or as Allaway said in another panel discussion, we require more than three earths to sustain our consumption level. 

The AOR crowd was issued a challenge. Help turn the plan into actions.

“Many programs are ready to go beyond recycling and waste management to materials management,” a DEQ presenter said. “What is “the overspent American,” how does it apply to our programs, and how can we use Paul Gilding’s concept of “the great disruption” to inspire instead of paralyze? Come explore some of the most forward-thinking concepts of our day, learn the new terminology, and begin to grasp what your role as an agency or a waste company can be in taking the next step forward.” 

Gilding’s book, “The Great Disruption,” is hot reading among environmentalists. It is about the “Climate Crisis” and how it will “bring on the end of shopping and the birth of a new world.” Gildings name was much invoked at the AOR conference.