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From BPS Director Susan Anderson: What if every city recycled like Portland?

You may have seen a recent opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times entitled, “The Reign of Recycling.” The author, John Tierney, suggests that the cost of recycling is too high and not worth the environmental benefits. While it’s true that global prices for scrap paper currently are very low, and recycling isn’t the financial slam-dunk that it was a few years ago – it still makes great economic sense!

Here in Portland, it still costs much less to collect and recycle paper, metal, other recyclables, food scraps and yard waste than it does to truck them to the landfill and pay to bury them in the ground. And that’s just the financial calculation – it doesn’t include the environmental benefits.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that current levels of recycling in the U.S. offset emissions equal to the carbon pollution from 39 million cars. (That’s about 15 percent of the total cars on the road.)

But what if every city in the U.S. recycled as much as Portland does?

The average city in the U.S. recycles about 34 percent of its waste, but here in Portland, we recycle more than twice that amount. So if everyone recycled the Portland Way, we’d cut carbon emissions equal to the pollution from nearly 80 million cars.

And just what is the Portland Way?

Well, by 2030 we plan to:

  • Recover/recycle at least 90 percent of all waste generated.
  • Reduce food scraps sent to landfills by 90 percent.
  • Help reduce the carbon and energy-intensity of products used in business supply chains.
  • Reduce emissions by helping residents consume smarter – (e.g. products that are more durable and use less energy).

The New York Times was right when it said that recycling is just one part of taking action on climate change, but those actions do add up. And imagine how much more could be achieved, if the entire country recycled at the same rate as we do. Keep up the good work, Portland!


Susan Anderson Signature

Susan Anderson, Director

City of Portland
Bureau of Planning and Sustainability

P.S. > Further reading: Many environmental organizations and advocates have published in-depth rebuttals to John Tierney’s piece. Here are a few worth checking out: