Rummaging through trash probably isn’t what most people would consider a successful business endeavor. But Portland’s steady rise to recycling fame is due in large part to the unsung efforts of Portland State students who sort through trash all as part of a day’s work. And they love it.
“The research we undertake is innovative and hands-on and brings about real, tangible change that drives us toward a more sustainable future. Students like to see actual progress and accomplishment made during their time with PSU,” said Eric Crum, director of Community Environmental Services.
PSU's Community Environmental Services inspects curbside compost bins to measure the effectiveness
of Portland's compost program.
Community Environmental Services (CES)—a little-known unit in the PSU College of Urban and Public Affairs—currently employs more than twenty Portland State students. The unit is profitable and completely self-funded through contract work with government agencies and private businesses.
Since 1992, students working with CES have been weighing curbside trash, recycling, and compost bins in Portland to help the city set hauling fees and waste reduction goals. They have been instrumental in providing outreach and educating the public about recycling. And since last January, they have been going curb-to-curb inspecting compost bins to see if Portlanders are actually composting their food scraps—research that will help make the city’s compost program more effective.
“We are working with some of the region's forefront organizations and local governments on projects that ultimately are informing the direction that sustainability for our region will travel—and that is very exciting,” Crum said.
The Portland International Airport is a shining example of their work. In the nearly ten years since CES staff began working at the airport, they have reduced waste, increased recycling, implemented a food waste collection program, and designed a liquid collection station for security checkpoints that has been emulated in airports across the nation and touted in the New York Times as “an environmental decision with economic benefit.” The liquid collection stations encourage reuse and eliminate waste by allowing people to empty their bottles and then fill them back up after going through the security checkpoint. They also prevent bottles full of liquid from being tossed in the trash or recycling, reducing maintenance costs and collection fees.
“Water is really heavy and gets expensive over time,” said Nate Forst, a recent MBA graduate and project lead at the airport.
By September of this year, the airport had already collected and composted more food waste, over 171 tons, than in the entirety of last year—an accomplishment Forst attributes to an outreach approach that emphasizes positive reinforcement when he and his team do random checks of vendors’ waste streams.
“We don’t really have the power to police them, so we have to get creative,” said Forst. “Being a constant smiling face and offering constructive feedback makes all the difference.”