Don Brunell

Guest opinion: Portland carbon tax may doom recyclers

In 1971, Oregon was the first state to enact a “bottle bill.” Fifty years later, Portland, Ore., could become the first city to approve a sweeping tax on carbon emissions — an action which may doom the city’s glass plant which turns those recycled bottles into new products.

Oregon’s Gov. Tom McCall had a good idea when he championed the legislation to address a growing litter problem along Oregon beaches, highways and other public areas. Since then, 10 other states followed Oregon’s lead.

The Owens-Brockway plant takes 100 percent of the glass bottles from the state’s recycling centers, Jules Bailey, chief stewardship officer of the Oregon Beverage Recycling Cooperative, told Willamette Weekly writer Nigel Jaquiss.

The facility has operated continuously since 1956 and now employs 115 workers — union members with good paying jobs and benefits. Every day, the plant recycles the equivalent of 440,000 beer bottles.

Bob Tackett, president of United Steelworkers Local which represents Owens-Brockway workers, told Jaquiss: “If Owens-Brockway closes, all of Oregon’s bottles would have to be shipped out of state — a prodigious use of diesel fuel — or thrown in landfills. A big part of the Bottle Bill would be kaput.”

Under the current Oregon law, consumers pay a 10-cent deposit when they buy most beverage containers 3 liters or less in size. People returning “empties” to redemption centers receive the 10-cent per container refund.

The program offers variety of ways for individuals, churches, charities and nonprofits to earn much needed money from the refunds. figures if you live in a state with a bottle bill, you can earn five to 10 times the amount per can that you’d earn if you live in a state without a bottle bill. For instance, if you could collect 1,000 cans per week, at 10 cents per can, you would make $100.

While the COVID-19 pandemic and its corresponding economic downturn hit recyclers hard, it is a proposed new city fee on greenhouse gas emissions that threatens industries within the Portland city limits.

Since the Owens-Brockway plant relies on natural gas to fuel its furnace, the city’s added fees on carbon emissions would increase the glass plant’s local taxes by more than $1 million a year. Overall, the new taxes would raise more than $11 million from about 80 companies. The hardest hit would be on Evraz Steel, which last year laid off about 300 of its 700 Portland employees.

Gov. Kate Brown and key lawmakers were kept in the dark about the city plan, Kristin Sheeran, Brown’s climate adviser told the Willamette Weekly. The city also did not coordinate with companies impacted by it.

That matters because the city and the state could apply new and different carbon regulations and fees on the same companies.

“Rather than just paying a tax, Gov. Brown instead supports a strong and coordinated approach to carbon reduction that addresses Oregon’s major pollution sources, while transitioning to a more equitable, clean energy economy,” Sheeran added.

“The result: Production gets outsourced to places with less carbon regulation. Portland loses jobs, and the costs and emissions produced by importing products once made here undercut local carbon reductions,” Jaquiss wrote.

Carbon tax proposals are volatile. In 2018, Washington state voters solidly rejected a proposed carbon tax that would have been the first in the nation.

“As much as I love carbon taxes, this should really be done at a national level,” Portland economist Joe Cortright told the Willamette Weekly. “For it to work correctly, incentives for innovation and investment are really important. If it only applies to a small area, it doesn’t create many incentives.”

Good points!

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver, Wa. He can be contacted at

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