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How much cardboard, duct tape, tinfoil, plastic and paint would you wager gets thrown away after Halloween? In Portland, it’s not just the trick-or-treating kiddos who get into the costumed action. With all the adults helping to keep Porltand weird on All Hallow’s Eve, garbage cans turn extra eclectic come the beginning of November. Now that Thanksgiving is fast approaching, it’s a perfect time to remember that being truly thankful doesn’t simply mean gratitude for what we’ve acquired, but also making sustainable decisions about the things we discard in order to preserve our environment.
The Rose City is proudly ahead of the curve when it comes to recycling. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, Portland ranks among our nation’s top recycling cities. In Bridgetown, we recycle more than half of our municipal waste — in fact, as of 2011, Portland’s recycling rate was nearly 60 percent. This has largely come about thanks to a 2011 shift in waste collection that meant curbside garbage pickup would only occur on an every-other-week basis. Such a plan helped improve Portland’s recycling rates, which had already been healthy thanks to our blue bin recycling program. Green compost bins (emptied weekly) meant that Portlanders could contain food scraps and not have stinky organic garbage piling up for two weeks. Even grease-stained pizza boxes (a longtime nemesis of recycling facilities) could begin going in the green compost bin.
While that initial shift to every-other-week garbage collection was met with some backlash, the results have made Portland one of the greenest cities in the nation. However, there are still many household items and other materials that don’t belong in the blue bins — items that are also hazardous to the environment if they end up in a landfill. Discovering ways to recycle the stuff that doesn’t belong on the curb can be a daunting task in today’s fast-paced world, but by doing a little homework, it’s evident that Portland is teeming with facilities and organizations willing to take your junk and either recycle it or repurpose it into reusable items or even creative works of art.
What Doesn’t Belong in the Blue Bin
The blue recycling bins may be handy, but if you use them to discard nonrecyclables they must be removed by city workers or they may potentially damage the machinery. Plastic bags are particularly harmful, as they’re known to jam the equipment; they actually contribute to a third of the labor costs for recycling. Even worse, they are easily blown around by the wind, causing excess litter that often makes its way into our rivers and oceans, where it can harm wildlife. It’s estimated that, in 2009, over 100,000 tons of plastic bags were used in Portland. Thankfully, many major retailers such as New Seasons Market have plastic bag recycling receptacles near their entrances to help with this problem. You can search for the plastic bag drop-off spot nearest you by visiting www.oregonmetro.gov, but there’s never been a better time to start making reusable bags a part of your shopping routine. One problem caused by the reduction in garbage pickup has been that people toss used diapers into the recycling. A 2013 NPR article reported that Portland material recovery centers were averaging 120 lbs. of diapers per day that were coming from recycling bins. While reusable cloth diapers aren’t a realistic option for everyone, entrepreneurial Portlanders Jason and Kimberley Graham-Nye founded gDiapers in 2005, a company which offers a hybrid reusable diaper with a washable outer pant and flushable or compostable (wet-only) inserts.
Light bulbs and batteries are both big no-nos for the trash bin — when these frequently discarded items end up in landfills they leach toxic chemicals into the ecosystem. With their significantly longer life spans, compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) are popular nowadays, but they can be a green decision gone wrong if they are thrown away, because they (along with all fluorescent lights) contain toxic mercury. To recycle CFLs, you can turn them in to retail outlets like Batteries Plus Bulbs, or at hardware stores such as Home Depot and Lowe’s. Again, the Tools & Services tab at www.oregonmetro.gov is a go-to point for finding the recycling location nearest you.
Modern culture has become dependent on plastics due to their convenience, and thankfully recycling programs (especially in cities with such a high recycling rate as Portland) are helping to take away some of the environmental impact. Plastic bottles have been a particular scourge, as they are usually only used once and then tossed. It’s estimated that the amount of plastic that humans throw away each year could circle the Earth four times if laid end to end! It’s important to ensure that any and every plastic product makes it into the recycling bin, but so-called rigid plastic (think Tupperware) is not allowed. Instead, we have the option to recycle these at local recycling centers such as Far West Recycling, and even at some retailers such as Whole Foods.
Then there are the more hazardous materials that simply can’t be recycled due to safety concerns. Metro’s hazardous waste facilities are ideal locations to get rid of these problematic items. Got some empty propane cylinders lying around the garage or in the backyard? Metro will take them off your hands. These locations accept many kinds of hazardous materials for recycling and disposal (often for a small fee), and anything with warning labels indicating they are flammable, toxic, poisonous or corrosive should be handled by Metro or another hazardous waste facility. However, while old motor oil may seem like a substance that needs to be disposed of by some other means, it can still be collected at the curb if it is placed in a gallon milk jug or similar clear plastic container with a screw-on lid.
Reuse and Repurpose
An even more effective means of reducing waste than recycling is finding new uses for those items we no longer need. Do you have a bunch of old paint cans lying around simply because you don’t know what else to do with them? Metro once again comes to the rescue, as you can take advantage of the MetroPaint program. We’re not just talking about recycling here, but actually using old paints to remake them into new ones. MetroPaint accepts up to 35 gallons of old paint free of charge. After the paint is screened for quality, additives are used to enhance the paint and it’s reblended into other desired colors. Not only does MetroPaint provide a service to those wishing to recycle old paint, but purchasing and using remade paint can be a more environment-friendly way to go about your next project. MetroPaint can be purchased at the program’s dedicated Swan Island location, and at many other paint retailers around town, including Fred Meyer.
One of the more creative reuse options comes via SCRAP PDX. Located in Southwest Portland, SCRAP describes itself as a “donation-based creative reuse store.” They also “provide a range of educational opportunities within the community and host local reuse-based artists.” Founded in 1998, SCRAP specializes in reused materials for arts and crafts projects, but also comes in handy as a resource for office and school supplies. In 2013, SCRAP PDX was able to divert 140 tons of material from what would’ve likely otherwise become waste, while also offering very low-price supplies to artists small and tall. SCRAP is a great place to donate items such as old gift wrap, carpet or wallpaper samples, containers of almost every sort, bottle caps, nails and screws, wood, old gift cards or key cards, old technology or office supplies and other household extras.
While used building materials can create a lot of waste, they are also prime donations for organizations that specialize in salvaged materials. Located in North Portland’s Mississippi neighborhood, the Rebuilding Center specializes in selling low-priced, reused building materials that include appliances, cabinets, windows, doors, toilets, tubs and tiles, as well as plumbing, lighting and electrical parts and fixtures. They also offer free pickup, and can provide you with the documentation needed to make your donation tax-deductible. In addition to being a great place to donate or buy used building materials, the Rebuilding Center also offers information and workshops on “creative reuse,” in order for people to repurpose items into new forms. Whether it’s old tile used to make garden stepping stones or a light fixture diffuser converted into a hanging bird bath, there’s no limit to the imaginative practical and artistic reuses.
These examples of Portland companies and nonprofits that help reduce our city’s carbon footprint are just the tip of the iceberg. While it may seem daunting at first, the key to sustainable disposal and waste reduction is simply knowing where to look. With our continued collective effort, Portland seems poised to continue leading the charge as one of America’s greenest cities.