For a city over the 500,000-population threshold in the United States, Portland is considered a leader in sustainability. It boasts a Recovery Rate around 60%, a residential Recycling Rate of 63%, and commercial Recycling Rate of 71%. Portland was under a dual stream program up until 2008, but has since switched to single stream with glass collected separately. Also, in 2005 they added a composting program to boost the city’s overall recovery rate. To learn more about what most Portlanders take for granted, I spoke with a 30+ year veteran in waste reduction, and Portland’s Solid Waste & Recycling Program Manager, Bruce Walker. Bruce and I met at the Waste 360 Recycling Summit in Austin, TX where he was asked to present on whether Single Stream had peaked. He helped to pioneer the first recycling program for Portland in 1992, and the “Pay-as-you-Throw” refuse rate system. In one controversial change of policy, he worked with others in the Bureau to switch the city’s refuse collection from weekly to bi-weekly, instead making compost collection a more frequent substitute. His past work and ambitions are particularly interesting to me, as I begin my career, and pursue a solution to our “Throw-Away Society.”
The city’s multi-family recycling program and the commercial food scrap initiative occupy a great deal of Bruce’s time and resources. Multi-family buildings represent roughly over one third of the city’s housing stock, and are consistently facing unforeseen challenges in recycling (mandated) and composting (voluntary). “A one-size-fits-all approach will not work. There is a big effort being made for better communication and coordination with property managers and haulers on issues such as capacity, co-location (where to place the receptacles in proximity to the living units), better signage, how to handle bulky waste, and standardization of the colors of collection containers for various waste streams,” asserts Bruce. “Only then will we get over to tackling composting.” Many people wonder why the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability doesn’t require the property managers to provide composting on their own, but Bruce thinks that would be an environmental disaster. “You can’t force people to comply. Contamination would most-likely exceed the benefits of what food waste was actually captured, especially since the composting stream requires more stringent quality than recycling.” A piece of plastic that never biodegrades, needs to be physically picked out at the commercial composting facility, so it won’t contaminate.
Over 1,200 restaurants, grocery stores, caterers, and a handful of multi-family buildings voluntarily participate in the city’s commercial food scrap collection program that began in 2005. The majority of the organic material is sent to an anaerobic digester in Junction City near Eugene, where the methane output is captured and turned into bio-gas used to power local buildings. Metro (the regional government in the Portland area) has recently issued a Request for Proposal to build an anaerobic digester closer to the city with the capacity to handle an increase in what’s being collected. “There’s going to be a region-wide mandate to boost this commercial food scrap program even further. At some point, this will involve multi-family, but it’s been agreed upon to hold off until we get a better handle on how to communicate with the various stakeholders. We’ll see how this all transpires, but we’re very hopeful.”
Not only does Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) envision a state with composting and recycling, but they are pushing source reduction and reuse as an incentive for cities to improve their recovery rate. “We don’t use the term ‘diversion,’ informs Bruce. “That’s more of a California term, where some cities still include the residuals from their recycling or composting in that number.” Instead, Oregon DEQ’s methodology uniquely calculates their Recovery Rate, beginning with what is recycled and composted as a simple ratio of total generation. What is unique is that the DEQ may reward additional recovery credits, up to 6%, for home composting, waste prevention and reuse activities. Each component is worth two percentage points.
Oregon DEQ has to approve these separate activities, using a methodology developed to determine energy savings and GHG reductions. Zero waste enthusiasts, like myself, can’t help but to applaud Oregon for also taking into account the environmental benefits that usually aren’t considered in the typical Recovery Rate. Here’s a list of the various “cities/counties” in the state, and their DEQ calculated Recovery Rate.
When asking Bruce what he sees as influential actions that any city can take to achieve sustainable status, he agrees that recycling, reuse, source reduction, and product stewardship are crucial factors. Although, he emphasizes one element not often talked about or considered: “I’d add an equity component to sustainability. It would tie in to a greater effectiveness in outreach to the entire city’s population, so everybody has the option to play a part and participate. It’s also our responsibility to communicate our message to limited-English speakers, or those on the edge of society. Often, this overlaps with the multi-family work that we’re doing, especially in low income neighborhoods.” To be clear, Bruce isn’t necessarily talking about recycling when he says this. “Portland residents know recycling with over 90% of the city’s population participating, but how can we shift people’s focus to reducing their purchases, reducing their consumption, or repairing broken items? I doubt any of these changes are going to be like [*snaps fingers*].