Anyone who has ever tried to dispose of an old battery knows there are gaps in our garbage and recycling system. Some people can recycle them at home, some people can't, some places charge to take them, some will take them for free. It's a frustrating piecemeal system that shows how unequal garbage and recycling services can be.
Metro is developing a Garbage and Recycling System Facilities Plan to assess the infrastructure that exists, both Metro owned facilities and beyond. This will identify the places where people lack services and show where future investments in new facilities or new services should be made.
Staff are studying this system as a whole – including the network of private organizations, both for profit and nonprofit, who support the community by filling in gaps where the public sector doesn’t reach.
Helping people dispose of sharps
One of these organizations, is the North by Northeast Community Health Center on NE Alberta Street. While garbage and recycling isn’t obviously in the realm of healthcare, staff noticed that sharps disposal was difficult for their diabetic patients.
Pharmacies used to accept sharps in the area, but when they stopped collecting them the community lacked options. “The community stigma around needles is that it has to do with drugs,” said Sharetta Butcher of North by Northeast.
The stigma around needles also leads to a lack of education on the topic. Many people just don’t know that you shouldn’t put them in the garbage. With a lack of better options or information, patients would dispose of their medical needles in their home garbage, which creates health risks for those collecting and sorting garbage.
Staff found few local disposal options as sharps and other hazardous medical waste needed to be transported to a hazardous waste facility. This wasn’t a good solution for patients who regularly use medical needles and don’t have the time, storage, or means to get to the nearest facility.
Instead North by Northeast, with help from Metro, installed proper sharps disposal containers at the clinic. Eventually they developed a collection program to give personal sharps containers to patients, become a convenient neighborhood drop off location, and provide education on proper disposal in the process.
Since that initial crossover into garbage and recycling, the clinic is now hosting collection events for many additional hard-to-dispose items like electronics, medications, Styrofoam and large household items too big to fit in home garbage bins. They’ve even developed a pickup program for elderly, disabled, or people who live alone who can’t lift large pieces of furniture and transport them to a collection event.
Keeping useful items out of the landfill
Another nonprofit filling these gaps is Trash for Peace, an environmental justice organization. Since 2012 they’ve been plugging into the local reuse, recycling and garbage system with a number of programs where community members do waste prevention work that otherwise would fall through the cracks.
The best example of this is “canners” who are folks that collect cans and bottles that can be redeemed for their deposit. When the Oregon Bottle Bill was first passed in 1971 it was largely to address litter, which was mostly bottles and cans.
Almost immediately after going into effect, the number of littered bottles and cans dropped sharply. This makes canners the de facto enforcement for the system. Through Trash for Peace’s Ground Score Association, canners and other “informal recyclers” are able to make a living wage doing this work.
Addressing other forms of litter is Trash for Peace’s G.L.I.T.T.E.R program, which focuses on providing “tentside” collection to houseless neighbors who would otherwise have no garbage service.
No matter the program, a gap that Trash for Peace fills is diversion. This means diverting useable items from the landfill, which the current system doesn’t have formal policy for yet. Instead, it’s up to the consumers and community members to donate useable items to Goodwill or other reuse stores when they don’t want them anymore.
But when useable items show up at transfer stations or dumpsters there isn’t a formal process for setting them aside, storing them, and transporting them to a reuse store. Organizations like Trash for Peace and North by Northeast do this when they host their own large item collection events by renting trucks to transport useable furniture to reuse organizations.
However, as Alondra Flores Aviña of Trash for Peace noted, “We’re not able to help all of the people who ask for it. There is more demand than we have capacity for.” Organizations filling these system gaps need help doing so, something Metro is considering by either investing money to expand their work, providing space to store, repair and sell items, and/or setting up a system for diversion at the Metro transfer stations.
Turning gaps into solutions
Both Butcher and Aviña help fill gaps through their work with community-based organizations and they are also members of a community advisory group assisting with the system facilities plan. Their insights have helped shape the investment scenarios Metro Council will review this fall.
The convenient neighborhood drop-off model that North by Northeast provides, is one element of the scenarios Metro is considering. By creating more smaller drop-off locations in areas that don’t have a transfer station, the system becomes more convenient, accessible – and more equitable.
Other scenarios being considered are: building new full-service transfer stations across the three counties, and investing in service expansion at existing private facilities and renovating the existing Metro facilities.
As the region grows, more investment is needed to ensure that everyone, no matter where they live, has equal access to garbage and recycling services. By addressing these system gaps, Metro aims to conserve resources and keep people healthy in the face of climate change, while ensuring everyone in greater Portland has convenient access to affordable services.
Editor's note: Metro contracts with both nonprofit organizations mentioned in this article.