What to do with yucky stuff in the garage
It's a typical morning, and a steady stream of cars is lined up at Metro's hazardous waste facility in Oregon City.
An older couple wants to dispose of a sealed container of used syringes. A woman cleaning out her basement has old paint. A man in a pickup truck has two unlabeled plastic buckets, and he forgot what's in them. "Maybe paint thinner or solvent?" he says.
They've all come to the right place.
Anything you need to get rid of that could harm people, animals or the environment qualifies as hazardous waste.
Every year in the Portland area, about 5.5 million pounds of antifreeze, batteries, cleaning products, electronics, fluorescent bulbs, fuels, glues, pesticides, mercury thermometers, used syringes and other products are collected for safe disposal. Most of that goes to Metro's hazardous waste facilities in Oregon City and Northwest Portland.
Cast-offs get recycled, reused
Of everything that comes in, 72 percent is recycled, reused or converted to fuel for industrial boilers and cement kilns, says Jim Quinn, Metro's hazardous waste program manager.
"I like to think of it as a great big filing system," says Denise Hays, the Oregon City facility supervisor.
Staff pull items from cars and trucks one at a time and place them on carts. Fluorescent tubes go straight into a large crate. They will go to a recycler, where the mercury is safely extracted and the glass and metal get reused.
Latex paint, which accounts for nearly 40 percent of the hazardous waste Metro receives, goes to a facility on Swan Island, where it's reblended and later sold as MetroPaint. Recycling paint saves energy, conserves landfill space, and reduces gases that contribute to climate change, Quinn says.
Inside the building, Hays points to the battery sorting area — they also are recycled, along with mercury thermometers.
"This is the reuse cart," Hays says, pointing to a motley collection of household cleaners and spray paint. Five percent of the stuff that comes in is donated to nonprofit organizations. Home improvement supplies and cleaners go to Urban Gleaners and Habitat for Humanity. Propane canisters go to Dignity Village. Spray paint goes to school mural programs.
Turned into energy
Flammables and combustibles, including paint thinners, acetones and tars, are directed to the room with the can crusher. "We call her Old Faithful," Hays says. Workers, wearing masks to protect from inhaling harmful fumes, crush the cans and drop the liquids into a 55-gallon drum. Full drums are then left to vent for 24 hours — to prevent explosion —before being transported.
Waste like this likely gets shipped to the Midwest to fuel specially adapted cement kilns. Altogether, more than a quarter of what comes into Metro facilities is used to make energy.
Prepared for any hazard
Hazardous waste technicians wear special gloves, plastic aprons over protective Tyvek suits, safety glasses and steel-toed boots. They're trained to handle a range of hazards and work closely with local bomb squads and state radiation services.
"We have to be prepared to deal with anything," Quinn says.
For less-common items that are labeled, most questions can be answered in a "master waste list" binder listing more than 1,500 products or chemicals, with details showing how each chemical should be safely handled, transported and disposed.
To figure out what to do with unlabeled mystery substances, "we take them to the fun room — the lab!" Hays says.
The lab features a small display of some of the weirder things dropped off: a snake in a vodka bottle, a vintage tin of military-issue talcum powder. Someone once brought a human brain in a mayonnaise jar to the Northwest Portland facility. (The formaldehyde was hazardous.)
"We ask, 'Is it water soluble?' " Hays says. "We want to know if it sinks, floats, reacts, emulsifies or mixes." Technicians measure the pH to find out if the substance is acid or alkaline and follow a series of tests listed on a flow chart to arrive at the correct way to dispose of it.
There's a dedicated room for sorting pesticides.
Transporting the hazardous stuff
About 17 percent of what's brought to the hazardous waste facility gets sent to a hazardous waste landfill in Arlington, in Eastern Oregon. There, the location and contents of each carefully packed drum are recorded.
Seven percent of the waste is incinerated, mostly in Utah.
"We enjoy finding the highest and best use for everything that comes through here," Hays says.
Bylined articles by Metro writers do not necessarily represent the opinions of Metro or the Metro Council. This story was edited from its original version published at oregonmetro.gov/news.