Hannah Schwartz and Nicholas Luke live in a Milwaukie apartment complex of about 100 units. A small recycling area for tenants is not too far from their front door but it fills up very quickly.
“The glass and cardboard containers are always overflowing,” Schwartz says. “There’s not enough room for the number of people using them.”
So they collect their junk mail, jars and plastic tubs on their patio and then drive it over to one of their parents’ houses. “They have more space and they’re very good recyclers,” Schwartz says.
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More than 300,000 people in the Portland metropolitan area live in an apartment or a condominium. Unlike the consistency enjoyed by residents of single-family homes who toss recyclables into a bin near their house and roll it to the curb, how and where apartment or condo dwellers are able to recycle depends on a range of interrelated factors.
For starters, the varied sizes and layouts of properties make it difficult to provide consistent recycling service for what amounts to about 17 percent of the region’s population. Is it a 5-unit complex? A 700-apartment high-rise? A campus-style estate that span dozens of acres? Building to building, garbage and recycling areas vary widely and can include chutes, rooms, compactors, and outdoor enclosures. And local governments, property managers and haulers all play a role in how those services are provided.
Bins fill quickly at some complexes
Jerry and Alice Baca live with their two young sons in a small complex in North Portland that includes an eight-unit building and a free-standing house. The garbage and recycling enclosure is a short walk from their ground floor apartment. Their son Sage, who is in second grade, often takes out the recycling. He can reach all the containers.
The nine households share one small dumpster for trash, a bin for glass and two 60-gallon roll-carts for other recyclables. “They fill up pretty quickly,” says Alice.
Better recycling service is one of the goals of a regionwide project now underway focused on recycling in multi-family buildings – meaning apartment and condo complexes with five or more units – in the greater Portland area. The project will include an assessment of the service provided at properties, as well as a study to see what ends up in each bin. Metro did a similar study of single-family home garbage and recycling last year.
“We are looking for ways to improve services and to offer residents equitable service delivery,” says Bruce Walker, manager of Portland’s Solid Waste and recycling program.
The multi-family project is a partnership between Metro and local governments. Metro oversees the garbage and recycling system while local governments set garbage and recycling rates and manage contracts with haulers.
“We’re all coming to the realization that the multi-family sector is where we need to focus,” says Heather Robinson, a recycling specialist at Washington County. “We need solid data on enclosure design, waste composition and building styles.”
One area that Robinson is particularly curious about: How much recycling bin space is allocated to each household in various multi-family settings? Is it enough?
Take the building in Tigard where Karen Duncan lives. Storage space in her apartment is limited, so she sometimes ends up throwing recyclables in the garbage rather than making the three-story trek to the bin. And bin space and general access are also issues. Duncan says small tubs for cans, paper and plastic fill quickly. A large dumpster reserved for cardboard is locked so that only management can access it. An unflattened box sits next to it. A prominent sign instructs residents: “When recycling bins are full, place extra items in the compactor.”
Some apartment renters don’t have access to any home recycling services at all. One Tigard woman, who didn’t want to be named because she didn’t want to make trouble with her landlord, says the property manager canceled the recycling service at her complex more than a decade ago because there was too much garbage in the recycling bins.
Property managers are required to provide both garbage and recycling services to all tenants.
But when recycling is consistently filled with non-recyclables, the haulers charge them more, and after a while, some property managers figure it’s cheaper not to provide recycling at all. Also, says Dan Blue, senior solid waste planner at Metro, both tenants and property managers move a lot and are not always familiar with the rules.
“It’s something that local governments care about and will work to resolve,” said Blue, a former manager of Gresham's Recycling and Solid Waste Division. He says when he worked in that city, it was hard to monitor all the properties.
“We had 300 buildings" in Gresham, Blue says. "We divided the city into quadrants and would monitor one quadrant per year. But, in four years, a lot can change.”
There have been efforts to streamline and improve recycling in multi-family buildings. In the early 2000s, Metro, the cities and the solid waste haulers worked together to create consistent rules around greater Portland.
The project now underway will look at a broad lay of the land, including system design issues and service levels. Collecting baseline data on the current system will help inform what is needed to ensure consistent recycling service to people who live in apartments and condos.
Large complexes have unique challenges
Property managers maintain the garbage and recycling areas for apartment buildings. Noreen Royce oversees two properties in Portland. She says having staff on site makes a difference, noting that “we get more wrong things in the bins” at the property with no office on site.
On one side of a large complex in Beaverton, there are about 400 row-style walk-up apartments with recycling and trash enclosures dotted around a wide area. The other side of the complex includes a 100-unit mid-rise building with garbage chutes on each floor. Residents take recycling to a large dumpster about 50 yards across the parking lot. It contains some carpet (which shouldn’t be there) and lots of unflattened cardboard.
There can be up to 10 move-ins and outs a month in larger complexes, and lots of cardboard boxes in the recycling bins.
“People put furniture in here sometimes,” says Scott Lecture, a tenant who’s smoking and chatting with a neighbor. He says he doesn’t recycle much himself, just saves his redemption cans and bottles to give to one of the other residents.
Kristin Leichner, office manager at Pride Recycling, a hauler that operates in Washington County, says the system works best when garbage and recycling containers are paired so residents don’t need to make separate trips. But garbage enclosures in some older properties built before recycling became standard can be too small to fit the containers.
New buildings also come with challenges. There are about 1,100 apartment and condo buildings in Washington County and many more under construction across the Portland region. Robinson says it’s important to engage with developers early in the planning. “We need to make sure that recycling and garbage facilities are not just an afterthought,” she says, that they’re big enough, laid out clearly, and easy for residents and haulers to access and to use.
Sue Christenson lives with her husband in a Tigard condominium community for people 55 and older. She takes the trash out every day and the recycling twice a week. This involves two flights of stairs and a short walk to an outdoor enclosure with clearly labeled trash and recycling containers.
“Our system works pretty well,” says Christenson, adding that community members and management keep a close eye on what goes in the various bins. “We follow up with residents who put glass in with newspaper or throw used electrical equipment in the garbage.”
She ticks off some of the rules: Garbage must be contained in tied-off bags to prevent leakage, cardboard must be flattened so that it takes up less space. “The haulers charge us if the lids won’t close.”
“In 90 percent of (properties),” says Robinson, “the rate schedule includes recycling in the garbage cost.” It costs more, she says, when we don’t do it right. Overflowing bins, garbage in the recycling – haulers charge property managers for such infractions, a cost that renters don’t always see.
But right now, those infractions are sometimes the result of a system that isn’t providing the service tenants need. One of the goals of the project now underway is to figure out how to change that.
Learn what goes in the recycling bin and what stays out