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Portland Mayor Sam Adams on the Myth of Recycling and the Cost of Plastic Pollution

This is part 11 of Stiv Wilson's tour to better understand how plastic ends up in the ocean. Read the previous installments here.

Sam Adams grew up on the beach in Newport, Oregon. At age 46, he’s seen his home beach change significantly and not for the better. Elected mayor in 2008 after serving as a city commissioner for four years, Sam has upped the sustainability ante in his city’s politics by aggressively working to mitigate Portland's footprint on the environment. He’s known for his approachable style and would most often prefer to be called "Sam" by his constituency, rather than "Mayor Adams."

At his core, Sam is a staunch environmentalist with a strong, personal connection to nature whose childhood experience is something out of the pages of Mark Twain. He was skinny and wore Huck Finn overalls and played in the woods and fished in the ocean. Being a fisherman was what introduced him to the issue of plastic pollution. “When we’d clean fish we’d see all this plastic. Fishing is slow paced and we’d talk about everything under the sun, including this problem, but we were kids and at the time we decided it was probably okay.” But as Sam grew older, he knew that this new wonder material called plastic manifesting in the guts of fish and in the ocean waves was far from okay. Growing up during the synthetic renaissance, he watched the paradigm shift towards plastics for packaging and products and how that shift ultimately affected his home beach.

Starting his political career, Sam was already fully aware of the plastic litter problem, but not yet versed on its human health impacts. As he says, “the plastic industry has not been required to disclose the harmful affects of plastic on people. I’m obsessed with the chemical invasion of our bodies and my personal and policy concern came out of understanding this aspect of the problem.”

But understanding a problem and implementing policy are two very different things. As he admits, there exists a significant national force that maintains: “plastic and chemistry make your life better and this has invaded our subconscious to believe that there is no other choice, and that plastic makes everything better.”

Sam knows the pollution firsthand; he’s personally toured his city’s sewer system which demonstrated that aside from the litter and pollution issues, plastic bags represent a significant cost to cleanup for a city; a key argument for getting policymakers engaged.

Of course, Sam understands that the plastic pollution issue goes way beyond plastic bags, but sees a bag ban as part of the practical first steps toward educating the public to avoid unnecessary packaging and motivating the public to bring their own reusable bag. “Plastic bags are the indicator species of this issue. Does it really diminish our quality of life to carry something else?" Oregon, like Washington, has a ballot referral process whereby special interest can organize around a city ordinance by gathering signatures to refer that ordinance to the ballot. Seattle, for example, passed a bag fee that was ultimately defeated by voters after the American Chemistry Council injected hundreds of thousands of dollars into the measure, characterizing the fee to voters as a new tax, aggressively targeting low income citizens and seniors, without mentioning the environmental issue to which the ordinance was targeting—a political bait and switch. Ironically, the ACC funds several plastic pollution cleanup groups as long as they tow the party line that reduction in plastic consumption isn't the solution and that more recycling is. It's the ultimate ruse, as the ACC is well aware that only 3 percent of plastics worldwide are recycled (at best) and that the market is characterized by supply outweighing demand by a factor of 25. News flash, just because you throw your plastic in a recycling bin does not mean it gets recycled, and the amount of virgin plastics being introduced to the environment is going up, not down. But fighting such a powerful and well funded industry is something Sam and his team say they're well prepared for. As he says, "I’m confident we will pass a ban but I’m being very thoughtful and methodical about it.”

Check the video below that recounts Sam’s sewer system tour and the economic cost of plastic to a municipality.


Stiv Wilson is a freelance writer/photographer and the communications director for the Project. He lives in Portland, Oregon. Next up: a conversation with artist Chris Jordan and his experience photographing plastic ingestion by Albatrosses on Midway Atoll.

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