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Curbside pickups yield big cut in trash

Garbage hauling reduced 44 percent while recycling soars
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Jeff Tunstall empties trash bins on his route for Heiberg Garbage & Recycling in Southwest Portland. New data shows that Portland residents have slashed the amount of garbage they send to the landfill by 44 percent under the new city system featuring enhanced yard debris pickup, curbside compost of kitchen scraps, and every-other-week garbage pickup.

Portland residents have slashed their garbage going to the landfill since the city expanded curbside composting last fall and reduced trash pickups -- a feat likely to attract national attention.

Despite the early successes, as measured in a city report issued last week, the shift to every-other-week trash pickup has led hundreds of Portlanders to become garbage scofflaws -- putting diapers and bags of garbage into their recycling bins or commercial garbage bins down the street.

The report by the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability showed that Portlanders stowed 44 percent less garbage in their trash cans the first quarter of 2012 while increasing their recycling. Residents put 12 percent more mixed recyclables into their blue roll-carts. And analysts expect deposits into the green compost carts will grow nearly 200 percent by year's end, thanks to new curbside collection of food scraps and the move to weekly pickup of the green carts.

The city of San Antonio recently sent staff members to Portland to learn about the new system, says Michael Armstrong, deputy director of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. And Seattle, Tacoma and Vancouver, B.C., recently launched pilot tests of every-other-week garbage pickup.

The new system is projected to cut enough greenhouse gas emissions to equal the effect of taking 4,000 cars off the road, Armstrong says. And it's cutting costs because it's cheaper to recycle than dump material into the landfill.

A pending residential rate hike for trash pickup, proposed by city staff at $1.20 a month for the most common monthly service, would be close to $2.00 a month if not for the savings in the new system, Armstrong says.

Dissent simmering

But there's still widespread discontent among many residents, and some surprising criticism from recycling industry leaders.

It's unclear if residents are putting trash into recycling bins out of ignorance or if they're practicing "trash civil disobedience," a protest against the loss of weekly garbage pickup.

Far West Fibers, the Portland area's largest operator of facilities that sort and resell recyclables collected at curbside, is seeing an increase in materials that contaminate the sorting equipment, says Keith Ristau, company president. Far West wants the city to return to weekly garbage pickups, even if it means picking up recyclables every other week instead of weekly to keep the cost down, Ristau says.

City Commissioner Dan Saltzman says the City Council will revisit the plan in October, and he wants to evaluate moving back to weekly garbage pickup.

However, the new system's success in reducing garbage could drown out calls to return to weekly trash pickups.

Instead, the city and garbage haulers recently agreed to a new three-stage system to warn customers of violations. In the past six weeks, garbage haulers have notified some 1,200 households that they are misusing the system, and the city followed up with letters to their homes. If it recurs, the city will call residents and issue verbal warnings. A third occurrence will result in a fine, at a still undetermined amount, Ristau says.

Portlanders and others have always put a certain amount of Styrofoam, plastic bags, garden hoses, clothing, shoes and other goods that don't belong into the blue recycling roll carts, Ristau says. But since Portland's new system began, the unwanted material has jumped about two-thirds, he says, and more of it is simply bags of garbage and diapers.

"It's not good citizenship," Armstrong says. "They've got a bag of garbage and they want it to go away, so they drop it into the blue cart."

Members of households using baby or adult diapers have been among the biggest critics of every-other-week garbage pickup, because diapers take up so much space and get even more smelly if left in trash cans for up to two weeks. The problem is expected to grow worse when the weather warms up this summer.

"It used to be we'd see diapers every couple of months; now we see diapers every few minutes," Ristau says of shipments from garbage haulers to his Northeast Portland sorting facility. He's concerned about exposing his employees to biohazards, and about contaminating other recyclables.

People adapting

But there also are signs that Portlanders are getting accustomed to the new system, and appreciating the ability to stow kitchen wastes and have their green compost carts picked up more often.

"I thought everyone would hate it," says Cherrie Louis, owner of Elmer's Sanitary Service, which serves the Grant Park neighborhood of Northeast Portland. "It did surprise me the amount of people that thought it was great."

Most of the warning slips her company issues are for customers exceeding the weight limit for their green carts, Louis says. She also hears stories of business owners complaining that residents are stowing garbage in commercial dumpsters.

For the first four months after the new system was announced, the phones lit up "like Christmas lights" at Heiberg Garbage and Recycling LLC, says company partner Brian Heiberg. "Some customers loved it and some hated it," says Heiberg, whose company serves neighborhoods in Southwest, Southeast, Northeast and North Portland.

Despite the early criticisms, customers are learning to adapt and complaints have dropped "dramatically," he says.

"People have learned, 'well you know, we can do this,' " Heiberg says. "It seems to be working well."

His company issued many "notice of violation" warning tags when customers put the wrong items in their recycling bins over the last six weeks, Heiberg says. "We haven't had any repeat problems," he says.

The city fielded many calls to complain about the system before it started and in the first six weeks. Since then, the call volume has returned to normal, Armstrong says.

If customers are having trouble making do with trash pickup every two weeks, one option is to switch to a larger trash can. Only about 3 percent of Portland's 140,000 residential customers use 90-gallon cans, which means most have the option to upgrade from 20-, 30- or 60-gallon cans.

Since the new system began, there are 1,800 more customers using 60- and 90-gallon cans. However, "just under 1,000 have decreased the size of the container," Armstrong says, and others have even switched to monthly garbage pickup.