Commitment to reducing waste through recycling, reuse and repair remains a widely held value in greater Portland. For decades, Metro and local governments have invested heavily in home recycling and composting programs, household toxics collection events, and home composting programs, which all keep waste from landfills.
Communities across our region now seek solutions to a literal “big problem” – bulky waste – or items that are too large to fit in home waste collection bins. A significant part of this waste is furniture. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans threw out over 24 million pounds of furniture and home furnishings in 2018, six times the amount measured in 1960.
In response, Metro’s 2030 Regional Waste Plan calls on local governments and Metro to improve bulky waste services. Specific improvements include increasing the reuse, repair and donation of consumer products through partnerships with waste reduction organizations and investments in neighborhood scale reuse and repair services and infrastructure.
It also calls for regularly occurring bulky waste collection services with an emphasis on serving people who live in apartments and lower income households.
To achieve these goals, Metro has partnered with local governments, businesses, and nonprofits that promote reuse and reclamation – also known as the circular economy – to understand the scope and scale of the problem, and to propose possible solutions.
Introducing the Metro Large Item Reuse Study
In 2022, Metro commissioned Start Consulting to produce the Metro Large Item Reuse Study. The study identifies gaps and opportunities for expanding large item reuse, calls for improving services for historically marginalized groups, and recommends strengthening relationships with local reuse organizations.
“There are so many gaps in today’s system, especially for renters,” says Liz Start of Start Consulting. Start noted that at some bulky waste collection events, one must show a garbage bill to participate. Because property managers typically pay their buildings’ garbage bills, this policy bars renters from accessing these events. Renters may lack access to the right vehicle to haul items, making donating or disposing of them expensive or difficult.
Also, low-income renters may not be able to afford furniture that is durable enough to withstand everyday use and multiple moves, making their furnishings more likely to enter the waste stream.
Start Consulting surveyed and interviewed 10 reuse and repair organizations about their impact on the economy and environment, and the challenges they face in delivering services. According to the study, these organizations kept an estimated 14,000 tons of large items out of the landfill in 2021. They also employed 1,600 people and generated an estimated $19 million in sales of large items.
Half the survey respondents want to expand but face considerable structural issues, including having enough space to receive, sort and repair bulky items.
“We could use three to four times more warehouse space,” said Anna Kurnizki, executive director of Community Warehouse, an organization that provides donated household furnishings to community members in need, free of charge.
The study found that more bulky waste could be kept from our waste stream if donation centers were better dispersed throughout the Portland metropolitan area. Many of these organizations operate in central Portland, creating a barrier to donation for Clackamas and Washington County residents.
For every step in the circular economy, transportation is a challenge. As noted above, a bulky item’s owner may lack access to a vehicle to haul their item, or they may not have the funds to hire a hauler.
For third party haulers, like junk removal service companies, diverting picked-up materials from the landfill can be complicated by the diversity of items they transport. If their first goal is reuse and repurposing, they might need to stop at multiple organizations before heading to the transfer station.
Finally, moving bulky things takes people power. Organizations and haulers need to have staff capable of moving large, heavy things.
Laura Kutner Tokarski, executive director of Trash for Peace, an organization with a variety of community-based waste diversion programs, dreams of a system that provides free, affordable, and regular collection for people in supportive housing, with those materials then being sorted, deconstructed, repaired or repurposed right here in our region.
“A system like that … could ultimately save money, especially when you consider the cost of driving discards all the way out to Arlington,” she said, referring to the fact that most of the region’s trash is transported to a landfill outside Arlington, Oregon.
Next steps to support reuse efforts
While the report was underway, Metro has taken other steps to support a better bulky waste collection system. This fall, a multifamily bulky waste collection pilot program will be conducted in Gresham. “By sampling materials collected in this pilot, Metro will garner information on the amount and types of large household items that could be reused,” stated Carl Grimm, a policy and program development planner at the agency. “This data will help Metro and local governments predict what kinds of reuse services and infrastructure would be needed to make the most of the collected items.”
Since its release, the Large Item Reuse Study has shaped draft scenarios in Metro’s Garbage and Recycling System Facilities Plan, which will be presented to Metro Council for decision making this fall.
Study recommendations that appear in the draft scenarios include funding for material recovery, reuse and repair, reuse warehouse hubs and retail centers, and reuse collection at transfer stations and recycling centers.
Finally, the study will shape Metro’s 2024 Investment and Innovation Grant program’s selection process. Since 2018, the program has provided approximately $1 million to nine local organizations supporting reuse and repair of large household items.
While the study clearly outlines the complications of achieving an equitable and efficient system for keeping bulky waste out of our landfills, the partners in this effort all express hope.
Kurnizki is enthusiastic about the process thus far. “I see so much opportunity in the genuine interest from Metro and other agencies to put actual investment into the circular economy, and to ask for input from thought leaders. It is so exciting; it feels like we are all pulling in the same direction.”