On a recent cold morning, a steady stream of cars lines up at Metro’s hazardous waste facility in Oregon City.
An older couple drops off a sealed container of used syringes (known as sharps), a woman who is cleaning out her basement has old paint, and a man in a pickup truck brings two unlabeled plastic buckets tightly wrapped in plastic. He can’t remember what’s in them. “Maybe paint thinner or solvent?” Also, he says, one of the buckets is broken.
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 what is known as hazardous waste. Every year in the greater 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. About 4 million of that goes to Metro's hazardous waste facilities (one in Oregon City and one in Northwest Portland) and collection events.
And where it goes from here depends on what it is and what can be done with it.
Of everything that comes in, says Jim Quinn, hazardous waste program manager at Metro, 72 percent is recycled, reused or used as fuel to power industrial boilers and cement kilns.
A lot of hazardous waste is recycled
“I like to think of it as a great big filing system,” says Denise Hays, supervisor at the Oregon City facility.
The sorting starts outside. Staff pull items from cars and trucks one at a time, and place them on a collection of carts. A stash of fluorescent tubes go straight into a large crate. They will go to a recycler where the mercury will be safely extracted, and the glass and metal end caps will be reused.
So far this morning, there’s a lot of latex paint, and that tends to be par for the course. Latex paint accounts for nearly 40 percent of the hazardous waste Metro receives. That paint goes to a facility on Swan Island in Portland to be reblended as MetroPaint. Recycling paint saves energy, conserves landfill space and reduces gases that contribute to climate change, Quinn says.
Some carts go inside the building where it’s a hive of activity. Hays points to the battery sorting area – they are also recycled, along with mercury thermometers and other things.
“This is the reuse cart,” says Hays, pointing to a motley collection of household cleaners and cans of spray paint. Five percent of the stuff that comes in here is donated to nonprofit organizations for use. 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. Leftover cooking oil, disinfectant and other items are also donated.
More than a quarter of hazardous waste collected is converted to energy
Flammables and combustibles, including paint thinners, acetones and tars, are directed to the room with the can crusher. “We call her Old Faithful,” says Hays. Workers attached to a breathing air compressor, so they don’t inhale harmful fumes, place cans on a grate over a 55-gallon drum. The cans get crushed and the liquid falls into the drum below. Full drums are then left to vent for 24 hours – to prevent explosion – before being transported.
Waste like this that has fuel value will likely be shipped to the Midwest. There it will be burned to power specially-adapted alternative fuel cement kilns. Altogether, more than a quarter of what comes into Metro facilities is used to make energy.
From a brain in a jar to the bomb squad, techs are ready for anything
The standard uniform for these haz waste technicians includes gloves, plastic aprons over protective Tyvek suits, safety glasses and steel-toed boots. They’re trained to handle a range of hazards and they also work closely with local bomb squad and state radiation services.
Usually what comes in is fairly routine, Quinn says, but “we have to be prepared to deal with anything.”
For less common items that are labeled, most questions can be answered with a look at a binder of plastic-covered pages listing more than 1,500 products or chemicals. It’s called the master waste list, and it’s color-coded to show which ones are dangerous. Several columns detail how each chemical should be safely handled, transported, and disposed of.
The “unknowns” cart holds products that are not in the binder, as well as unlabeled mystery substances. To figure out what to do with these, “we take them to the fun room – the lab!” says Hays.
Inside the lab is a small display of some of the weirder things that have been dropped off at Metro South: a snake in a vodka bottle, a vintage tin of military issue talcum powder. The facility in Northwest Portland once took delivery of a human brain in a mayonnaise jar – it was the formaldehyde that was hazardous.
“We ask, ‘Is it water soluble?’” says Hays. “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.
Preparing for safe transportation and disposal
There are more than 50 disposal categories. Some things, for example, need to be lab-packed. Outside the lab, a technician puts small bagged quantities of various products into a metal drum for safe transportation and disposal. “He goes off a list that shows what chemicals can go into the different drums,” says Hays. “You pack in layers – 40 percent waste and 60 percent absorbent.” Absorbent? “It’s like kitty litter.”
About 17 percent of what comes to the hazardous waste facility ends up in the hazardous waste landfill east of Portland in Arlington, Oregon. This is a landfill specially lined to prevent chemicals from leaching into surrounding soil and groundwater. The location and contents of each carefully packed drum are recorded when placed there.
Seven percent of the waste is incinerated. There’s a dedicated room for sorting pesticides, most go to Utah for incineration.
In just a single month last summer, more than 3,000 people brought different hazardous substances to Metro South, paying a small fee for the service. Hays loves the variety that each day brings.
“We enjoy finding the highest and best use for everything that comes through here.”
What’s hazardous and where to take it
Four million pounds of potentially toxic, flammable, corrosive or explosive waste end up in the garbage or recycling – at work and at home, says Jim Quinn, hazardous waste program manager at Metro. There it can leak, start fires, hurt garbage workers, or damage equipment at sorting facilities. And when waste like goes down the drain or to a garbage landfill, the heavy metals and other harmful chemicals can end up in the rivers, air and groundwater, Quinn says.
Find out what’s hazardous and where to take it