How Oregon Plans to Get More Out of Their Products

The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) introduced their “Strategic Plan for Reuse, Repair, and Extending the Lifespan of Products in Oregon,” in December 2016, which shifts the state away from waste management and towards a framework for sustainable materials management. Oregon realizes that product lifespan extension is significant in preserving the earth’s resources, and has developed the reuse strategy based on their “Materials Management 2050 Vision and Framework for Action.” This vision recognizes that the earth’s resources are finite (contrary to current economic belief), and takes into account the full impacts of a material’s lifecycle. In all, it is estimated that the production, transportation, and disposal of materials contribute “42 percent of all domestic emissions (13 percent food, 29 percent other materials). This is considerably more than the emissions from any other system, including transporting people (24 percent of total) or heating, lighting, and cooling buildings (25 percent).1

The plan details past research findings, objectives, actions to take, and possible outcomes under its strategy to boost reuse, repair and product lifespan extension. In hopes of promoting their vision over the next six years (2016-2021), four overarching strategies were targeted:

  1. Conduct Foundational Research
  2. Develop Infrastructure and Build Capacity
  3. Drive Users to Infrastructure
  4. Provide Policy Support Where Needed

Simon Love, Oregon DEQ’s Reuse, Repair and Product Lifespan Extension Specialist, tasked with implementing the strategic plan. “The biggest challenge is shifting attitudes at the pace that they need to be shifted. To have people think ‘can I repair or reuse this?’ We’re, in a way, conditioned to believe that buying new makes us happy. Also, the pursuit of convenience over everything is another issue we need to address.” This pursuit of convenience has lent itself to a downturn in repair industries over the last twenty years. Stiff competition from low-priced and difficult-to-repair products has led to more single-use products flowing freely throughout the market.

Why does Oregon seek to institute longer product lifespans in the first place? Well, of course there are the environmental benefits of keeping material out of the landfills, but Love says that Oregon isn’t striving for reuse solely for this purpose. “Keeping things out of the landfill itself is not that great of a goal. For one thing, there is plenty of landfill space. The environmental impact of a product sitting in a landfill is small compared to preventing it upstream at production. If you can avoid producing unnecessary new things, then you’ve made a real difference.” Limiting production at the onset mitigates greenhouse gas emissions, and also preserves virgin resources. In 2014, the direct consumption of materials contributed more (44 percent) to Oregon’s consumption-based greenhouse gas emissions than any other major category of emissions.

Although, the notion of limiting GDP growth in our fast-moving society sounds like it would have real problems for the economy. “Sure, there’s the thought that the more stuff we reuse and repair the less stuff we’re buying. But actually, reuse and repair create many jobs in our state,” said Love. “It’s especially strong here because of the robust artisan ‘maker’ society. Also, the country is starting to see this shift to American-made high quality, durable products.”

During the plan’s research stages, it was essential for Love and his colleagues to identify high impact materials, since not all materials have equal environmental or economic benefits. Textiles fall near the top of the list, because they require a lot of water for manufacturing (an estimated 2,700 liters for a simple cotton T-shirt), along with all the regular GHG emissions of moving throughout the supply chain. How do they plan to counter the “fast fashion” culture of people wanting new clothes every month, encouraged by retailers like H&M and Forever 21? “It’s a tough nut to crack. Unfortunately, the biggest problem isn’t how you make those clothes or how you dispose of them, but the fact that people want new clothes every month.” Currently, a post-consumption approach is the best that can be done to encourage donation and textile recycling.

Another branch of Oregon’s economy that the strategic plan targets is building materials. There is an immense difference between “demolition” and the eco-friendly version, “deconstruction.” “Materials management grants for things such as careful deconstruction can be quite significant from DEQ,” states Love. Right now, Oregon is the leader in deconstruction, mainly driven by the ever-growing number of firms who specialize in it within the state’s largest city; Portland. “The City of Portland conducted some training, and now there are about 15 firms that participate in deconstruction, creating a lot more jobs in the area. There is still a bit of a stockpile of materials, but hopefully, after this year, and a relaxation of the rules on salvaged lumber, this will allow more demand. Plus, old lumber is often nicer than new lumber, and it’s cheaper as well,” said Love.

Oregon DEQ understands there is a price gap between deconstruction and demolition, but wants to evaluate the social costs associated with each. Already, it is known that there are negative health effects with demolition, and deconstruction is sometimes promoted as a means to reduce lead and asbestos dispersion. Still, research will be needed to determine the magnitude of these adverse health effects, and the scale of the environmental benefits. Oregon’s objective is to identify where deconstruction is preferable to demolition, and help property owners or developers familiarize themselves with the change. “Cities such as Detroit, who are currently in the midst of a large demolition effort, could really benefit from this type of research,” mentions Love.

Repair and reuse has already been attempted on the demand side unsuccessfully. Asking consumers to curb their wasteful convenience-seeking behavior has not worked well in the past. Oregon DEQ aims to shape policy, provide grants, and build potentially fruitful relationships with stakeholders in order to get for-profit businesses over the hump. “This plan is somewhat experimental, trying to boost the reuse and repair industries at the grassroots level from the capacity side.”

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