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History of Portland's Garbage and Recycling System

Early Efforts

Until recycling was adopted as state policy in the 1980s, Portland’s system for collecting garbage was essentially unregulated by the City. It was a free-market system, where privately-owned garbage companies competed for residential and business customers.

As of the mid-1950s, there were around 250 companies operating in Portland. By 1989, the count was 112. By 2013, there were 18 franchised residential collection companies and around 40 permitted commercial collection companies.

Recycling policy emerges

In 1983, the Oregon legislature mandated that every community set up a system to provide its residents the opportunity to recycle. Each local community was required to design and implement a system that was appropriate for its particular geography, population distribution, population density and distance to recycling markets. The legislature provided a theoretical basis for placing each material on a community’s list of required recyclables – basically that the local cost of collecting that material for recycling must not exceed the local cost of its collection as waste.

Portland establishes its first recycling system

In 1987, Portland began requiring all garbage and recycling companies to offer recycling service to their customers. For residential customers (those customers in single family homes through four-plexes), the requirements included weekly collection of newspapers and monthly collection of metals, glass jars, corrugated cardboard, office paper and used motor oil. 

For commercial customers (businesses and multifamily communities with five or more units), the requirement included collecting any of the above materials from any interested business or multifamily residence customer. State law prohibited garbage and recycling companies from charging extra for recycling collection.

At the time, not many businesses and multifamily residences took advantage of recycling collection services. Some exceptions were companies that generated cardboard and metals, large quantities of clean office paper and businesses where managers or employees were enthusiastic about recycling.

Residential franchise system implemented

In 1991, the Oregon legislature modified the requirements for local communities’ recycling programs. Urban communities were required to increase their residential collection frequency, were encouraged to add more recyclable materials and to offer better recycling opportunities and incentives for multifamily residences and businesses.

In 1992, Portland adopted a franchise system as a means to carry out the changes for the residential sector. (The franchise system was proposed for the commercial sector as well, but the business community expressed a strong desire to retain a free market system.) The Residential Franchise Agreement, still in place today, assigned Portland garbage and recycling companies serving residential customers to specific areas of the city. When this system first started, there were 69 residential garbage and recycling companies.

Commercial recycling changes

The residential franchise system immediately showed excellent results, so in 1993, City solid waste and recycling staff turned their attention to the commercial sector, which generated about 75 percent of Portland’s remaining garbage. Staff began working extensively with Portland’s business and multifamily owners to find practical and effective ways to increase recycling.  The resulting “50 percent requirement” mandated that beginning January 1, 1996, commercial customers must set up recycling systems and ensure that at least 50 percent of their waste materials were recycled. In 1997, the Council also set a goal that the commercial sector recycle 60 percent of its waste by 2005.

Through the garbage and recycling companies, the City provided every business customer with printed information about the 50 percent recycling requirement, and required that every customer sign a commitment to recycle at least 50 percent of their waste, specifying which materials they would recycle. The City established authority to assess a fine to businesses that do not meet this goal. The intent of the fine is to encourage compliance, not to raise money. As such, City regulations provide for an “assistance period” of 30 days, with free technical assistance and resources provided to businesses to achieve compliance instead of immediately assessing penalty for noncompliance.

Portland did not meet the 2005 goal of 60 percent recycling for the commercial sector. Additional programs and plans were developed to facilitate reaching this and other waste reduction and recycling goals.

In 2009, Metro initiated the Enhanced Dry Waste Recovery Program (EDWRP) which requires that all mixed dry waste, primarily from construction and demolition activities, is delivered to a material recovery facility. This ensures that recyclable materials such as wood, cardboard and metal are removed from loads before disposal.

Portland Composts! Program

In early 2005, the City of Portland developed the Portland Composts! Program. This requires every garbage and recycling company that offers commercial service, to offer composting collection – or to sub-contract with a company that does. Business participation is voluntary. In 2012, almost 900 accounts were participating in the Portland Composts! Program; up from 700 in 2011.

Portland Recycles! Plan

In 2006, the City Council adopted a resolution directing City staff to prepare and submit to the Council a solid waste management plan. This required staff to conduct a planning process to solicit input from the public and stakeholders in developing proposed plan elements. The Plan included recommendations for both the residential and commercial sectors as well as City government operations. City Council unanimously adopted the plan in 2007. These adopted recommendations include:

  • increasing the citywide recycling rate to 75 percent by 2015.
  • reducing toxics and greenhouse gases.
  • achieving zero growth in the waste stream.
  • making the waste management system as a whole more sustainable.

Significant components of the Plan have been implemented for residential customers. Since October 2011, all residences with curbside collection are provided weekly recycling and composting (yard debris and food scraps) collection and every-other-week garbage collection. A year into the new curbside collection system, 38 percent less residential waste was headed to the landfill and three times more yard debris and food scraps were turned into compost.

For commercial customers, the plan called for a new mandatory paper and containers recycling requirement for all businesses in the city. Portland implemented this in 2008, asking businesses to implement five easy steps to achieve a successful recycling program. Businesses that completed the steps were Recycle at Work certified, and recognized for their achievement.

Letters were mailed to 24,036 Portland businesses and a campaign was introduced to encourage employees to get their businesses certified. By June 2010, 2,286 businesses were certified for completing all five steps.

The Plan recommended increasing the mandatory recycling requirement for construction and demolition debris from 50 to 75 percent for specified projects.

Multifamily properties were also given a 75 percent recycling goal, but on a longer timeframe. Property managers and residents received targeted outreach and BPS worked to ensure that multifamily residents were provided the opportunity to recycle. In 2004, working closely with commercial haulers, BPS piloted a direct outreach campaign to multifamily owners and managers to increase recycling through implementation of centralized two-sort collection set-ups. By 2012, Portland had increased and improved recycling participation at all multifamily complexes as well as assisted property managers with implementing food scrap collection at interested complexes.

The plan also required piloting public recycling containers. In 2011, about 300 containers were placed in the downtown transit mall. In 2012, these containers were diverting about 1,000 pounds of recyclables a week and 75 percent of the materials collected were properly prepared. Garbage containers adjacent to recycling containers showed a significant decrease in the amount of recyclable materials sent to the landfill. Additional containers in downtown and other areas are under consideration.

Climate Action Plan

In 2009, City Council adopted the Climate Action Plan, a strategy to put Portland and Multnomah County on a path to achieve a 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels). The plan included three goals for 2030 relating to consumption and solid waste and identified a number of actions to achieve these goals: 

  • Reduce total solid waste generated by 25 percent.
  • Recover 90 percent of all waste generated.
  • Reduce the greenhouse gas impacts of the waste collection system by 40 percent.