Commentary: We’re good stewards but we can do even better

We’ve embraced recycling but we need to do more to remove waste from what we toss in the bins.

By Norma Smith

For many of us on Whidbey Island, Saturdays regularly include a trip to the transfer station, where we take our garbage and sorted recyclables. It’s often a time to say hello to someone in the community you haven’t seen in a while, and catch up on life while making sure your green glass is separated from the clear, the mixed paper from the cardboard, the tin from the aluminum cans. It’s a bit of hassle, but no one seems to mind. We want to do the right thing.

As Washingtonians, we have a deep respect for environmental stewardship and the visionary work of past leaders like the late Sen. Jack Metcalf, who more than three decades ago created policies that would lead the way for our shared commitment and national standard setting.

We have made big strides, but there is much more work to do.

In 1989, Washington state passed a law setting the ambitious goal of a 50 percent recycling rate by 1995. We didn’t get there in six years. In fact, it took 22 years. But we did get there, and our recycling rate has remained steady since 2011. Unfortunately, in our quest to become better environmental stewards, many people came to believe the false narrative that throwing everything in their recycling bin was doing something positive for the planet. That simply was not true.

A lack of knowledge about what should be recycled and what should be put into the waste stream has led to widespread contamination of recyclable materials. It has gotten so bad that China, which is the top export market for Washington’s recyclable commodities, recently announced it would be raising import standards for the materials it accepts going forward. The country is now in the process of cracking down on illegal trade and working to improve its domestic recycling industry, which has left many nations scrambling, including ours.

In 2016, the United States shipped $5.6 billion worth of scrap exports to China, including $1.9 billion in paper and $495 million in plastics. It’s clear China’s crackdown is going to have a significant impact on us here in Washington state and on the U.S. as a whole. For too long, we have simply relied on other countries to take care of our waste. In doing so, we have created more negative environmental consequences globally than most of us realize.

Earlier this year, I introduced House Bill 2914 to direct the state Department of Ecology to develop a public outreach strategy to improve consumer education and recycling practices, reduce contamination rates and promote statewide best practices. HB 2914 also provided a roadmap to assess the economic opportunities for expanding recycling businesses in our state.

The bill passed out of the House unanimously, but time ran out in the 60-day session before it could get to the Senate floor for a vote. The effort will continue next year, but for now, please visit the Ecology Department’s website to learn what steps you can take to help reduce recycling waste:

Thankfully, we have been successful in other efforts to look honestly at our consumption and stewardship goals, and address the negative consequences often experienced by others globally.

In 2015, I introduced a bill that established the Joint Center for Deployment and Research in Earth-Abundant Materials (JCDREAM), the first formal state effort in the nation. Rare earths and other conflict materials are used in many technologies, including next generation clean energy and transportation, and are often acquired in ways that leave a well-documented legacy of environmental damage and human rights violations.

JCDREAM is focused on making Washington state a leader in the research, development and deployment of earth-abundant materials, which are reliably accessible and can be acquired in environmentally responsible ways. Research is currently being conducted and expanded at Washington State University, the University of Washington, and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Last year, I authored language to create a product stewardship program for solar panels, the first of its kind in the nation to require the safe recycling of panels. The program, which was incorporated into a bill to increase our state’s buildout of solar energy, directs manufacturers to address the materials used in the panels that pose a threat to the environment.

More stewardship efforts are also underway. Our state is well served by legislators on both sides of the aisle who share a strong commitment to long-term and sustainable environmental policies that reflect a common and deeply held value: to live as good ancestors. We may not always agree on the path, but because of our shared goals, I am confident the rigorous legislative process I’ve been a part of since 2008 will continue to deliver sound solutions.

These efforts are about recognizing the responsibility we have to the generations that will follow us, as well as to our global neighbors whose lives are affected by our daily decisions and purchases. It is vital we continue to understand and own the consequences of our own consumption, and fully commit to being locally and globally responsible stewards of our environment. We are all in this together.

State Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton, has served in the House of Representatives since 2008. She is the ranking Republican on the House Technology and Economic Development Committee, and the assistant ranking Republican on the House Capital Budget Committee.

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