Jones latches the metal bar on the front of the bin to his truck. He flips a lever. A hydraulic lift called a “stinger” elevates the bin, then dumps it. The cart vomits yard debris and food waste into the truck. Moldy bread, rotten bananas, greenish-tinted hot dogs and carrots swim in a bilious sludge. Inhaling the essence makes me feel like I’m spinning around in the bottom of a garbage disposal.
“Pretty nasty, huh?” Jones says with a grin.
A belch of diesel exhaust as Jones pulls away from the curb provides relief from the sickly sweet smell of decay.
Jones’ employer, Cloudburst, is one of 19 companies that have contracts to collect Portlanders’ waste, recyclables and debris.
Cloudburst owner David McMahon operates from a dusty command post located close to grain terminals and concrete plants on the Willamette River’s east bank. His company provides service to thousands of eastside homes and commercial or multifamily accounts. Founded in 1975, the company calls itself the city’s oldest full-service recycler.
Cloudburst and its drivers, including Jones—who like most of his peers operates a one-man truck—are the first link in the chain of the city’s new composting system, taking mixed yard debris and food waste from curbside to transfer station.
Although other leading recycling cities, such as San Francisco and Seattle, started recycling food waste before Portland took its program citywide last Oct. 31, Jerry Powell of Resource Recycling magazine says no other large city combined such a program to cutting garbage collection in half.
“That is a huge change,” Powell says.
And it came fast. Haulers weren’t ready at first. “It took people three or four months to get used to it,” Cloudburst’s McMahon says. “But it seems now to be accomplishing the city’s goals.”
Those goals: to increase the recycling rate, currently 58 percent, to 75 percent by 2015, and to reduce the amount of waste trucked to Portland’s primary landfill in Arlington, Ore.
Lisa Libby, Mayor Sam Adams’ planning and sustainability director, says the city is happy with the progress—garbage is down 44 percent, recycling is up 12 percent, and composting is up by almost three times.
“The program has exceeded our expectations,” Libby says.
For Jones, the change means that two days a week he handles nothing but green bins. Since Oct. 31, figures show, the program has collected 59,000 tons of what the city calls “residential organics”—the equivalent of 260 million rotting apples.
To see how the system is working, WW followed residential organics from curbside to a transfer station to the composting facility.
It’s a dirty, smelly journey that only a seagull could love.
Tracking food waste from beginning to end, it’s clear that after some initial problems, Portland has successfully implemented a program reliant on voluntary compliance and a mixture of high-tech and old-fashioned processing techniques.
Cloudburst’s McMahon says he’s had to add some man hours to accommodate the changes, but the financial picture is about the same. Metro, the regional government in charge of solid-waste disposal, says the money it saves by not hauling waste to Eastern Oregon is offset by higher processing costs. Residents of North Plains, where the organics turn into compost, don’t like being Portland’s compost bucket. But even there, things are improving.
“It works pretty well,” says Jones, the Cloudburst driver. “Most people try to do the right thing.”
It’s just before 6:30 am on a Tuesday when Jones fires up his 20-ton compost truck in the shadow of the Fremont Bridge.
For the past eight years, he’s driven Cloudburst’s territory on the central east side.
The Milwaukie High School graduate earns $18 an hour. That’s less than Cloudburst’s competitors have offered him, but he says he likes his colleagues and bosses.
A rafter and soccer player, Jones looks younger than his 36 years. He previously worked construction, laid turf for athletic fields and labored in a mill. But he’s content driving a one-man truck with nobody looking over his shoulder.
“This is a good job,” says Jones, who with his girlfriend, a chef, is raising two foster children. “People think it’s a real dirty job. It’s not.”
Piloting his truck through Southeast Portland, Jones can block driveways, stop in front of hydrants and claim right of way from shiny new SUVs.
He’s king of the road.
“Me and the mailman,” he says.
It’s dangerous work—sanitation workers such as Jones die on the job at a rate 60 percent higher than police officers. Last year, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked garbage collecting as the seventh-most dangerous occupation in the U.S., just a little less dangerous than roofing.
Although his shiny white rig is enormous, noisy and topped by a flashing yellow light, Jones says he’s invisible to impatient motorists. That’s the biggest danger in the job, he and McMahon say—getting run over by an impatient driver.
Jones says he’s had more than one close call. “Drivers just come flying by,” he says. “They don’t respect us like they do police cars or tow trucks.”
There are also a lot of moving parts in his truck, which can handle trash or compost: The hydraulic “packer panel” slides back and forth like the jaws of a shark, crushing the greenery and slop into the truck’s gaping storage chamber.
“A guy I know got his arm caught in one of those,” Jones says. “Tore him up pretty good.”
When the city introduced roll carts for yard debris in 2008, Jones’ job got easier.
“Before, you’d come around the corner in Laurelhurst and there’d be a yard with six cans and 20 bags lined up,” Jones says. Barrels often filled up with rainwater or the liquid from decomposing material. Hoisting them manually meant you got sore and often soaked.
McMahon, Jones’ boss, refers to the old-style compost containers as “man-killers.”
The roll carts are better, but since he can’t see inside them, Jones raises the lid of each one to inspect for forbidden material.
“It’s added a little time,” he says.
All food scraps—including meat and fish, pizza boxes and napkins—can now go in with yard debris, but diapers and pet waste cannot.
Jones wears greasy-looking leather gloves when he handles the bins. He good-naturedly pulls soda and beer cans and more than the occasional bag of dog poop from the green roll carts before dumping them in his truck.
“One person left a dead duck in their bin,” he recalls. “I wrote them a note.”
If there’s a lot more that shouldn’t be in the bin, Jones will leave a pre-printed note affixed to the bin handle. (The City Council considered elevating those warnings to fines, but decided last month not to do so.)
As we stop at a home on Southeast 28th Avenue, Jones’ truck pees out a brown liquid, the result of a faulty seal.
Jones peeks under the lid of one debris bin and shakes his head in disgust: full of garbage.
“These are folks I write up almost every week,” he says, attaching a note to the bin. Compliance generally seems high—city figures show fewer than 1 percent of households put out contaminated material—and he writes only a couple of tickets in more than 75 stops.
Jones says people have mostly accepted weekly composting and have adjusted to every-other-week garbage pick-up.
Then again, it’s just started to get warm.
“People keep talking about how bad it’s going to get in the heat,” he says. “But it’s all the smell of money.”
Jones says residential composting bins are largely vermin free. That’s not true of the commercial dumpsters he unloads on other days.
“I’ve had rats and mice jumping over me,” he says. “You hear about that guy who got the plague down in Redmond? It’s something to think about.”
At the end of his day, Jones drives his 5 tons of compostable material across the Willamette and down Highway 30 to the Metro Central Transfer Station, located next to a sea of oil tanks six miles northwest of the Fremont Bridge.
Metro Central receives most of Portland’s garbage, recyclables and household organics on the second leg of their journey.
Calling Metro Central a transfer station does no justice to the glorious landslides of junk, trash and aromatic organics that flood the site each day.
Engorged garbage and compost trucks queue up at the facility’s gate like a line of fat beetles waiting to discharge their cargoes.
Metro, the tri-county regional government responsible for waste disposal, contracts the facility’s operations to California-based Recology, which handles San Francisco’s food-composting program.
Paul Ehinger, Metro’s director of solid waste operations, oversees Recology’s work.
“It’s not an overly exciting business,” Ehinger, 63, a former consulting engineer, says of his oversight role. “But it’s more enjoyable than I ever thought waste could be.”
Garbage gets dumped in the west end of the facility, where it is sorted and loaded into semitrailers and driven 136 miles east to Arlington for burial.
Recyclable material—glass, metal, paper and plastic—is sorted at the north wall of the building and shipped out for reprocessing.
But since Oct. 31, the action is in the south side of the transfer station, where the residential organics come in.
In some ways, dealing with this material is a grown-up version of playing in a sandbox.
Jones and other drivers dump their loads on the concrete floor, where it is immediately attacked by a madly beeping Caterpillar front-end loader that slides on a sheen of goo as it brakes.
The loader quickly shoves the material toward a Rube Goldbergian contraption called a slow-speed shear grinder.
The material is ground and chopped as it travels up a conveyor belt at a 45-degree angle. At the top of the device, the processed material plunges off the belt and into a waiting semitrailer truck.
With beeping alarms, roaring diesel engines, the grinder and an even larger garbage-sorting operation in an adjacent space, there’s so much noise at the Metro transfer station that it’s easy to forget the smell—except when a load of commercial food waste arrives.
Commercial food waste comes in large plastic bags, which are pretty juicy by the time they get to Metro. The bags pop like enormous zits as the loader shoves them toward the shear grinder. Murky liquid spurts across the floor alongside fish parts, potatoes, bananas, pineapples and lots of mush that a CSI sleuth would struggle to identify.
“Even when a load is solid food, it’s not so bad,” Ehinger claims with a smile.
Ehinger says commercial food composting, which Metro began eight years ago, is where the real growth opportunities remain. Commercial establishments in Portland produce 150,000 tons of food waste annually and recycle less than one-fifth of that amount.
One reason the transfer station doesn’t smell worse is because the compostable material gets shoved out the door. As soon as one semitrailer fills, another takes its place.
“We want to move it out fast,” Ehinger says. “Quick turnover is really desirable.”
In addition to minimizing the smell, Ehinger wants to keep varmints at bay.
Last fall, around the time Portlanders began mixing food with yard debris, airborne scavengers descended on Metro Central.
“An awful lot of seagulls showed up,” Ehinger recalls.
The swooping, pooping seagulls quickly “turned everything white,” he says. “They made it miserable around here.”
Some public agencies use noise cannons, sharpshooters or even poison to get rid of pests.
Ehinger’s team hired Airstrike Bird Control LLC, which specializes in “falconry-based bird abatement.” Airstrike brought in three falcons—Oscar and Phantom, gyr-peregrine hybrids, and a prairie falcon named Malice.
Chris Fox, the birds’ trainer, patrols the transfer station in an orange hardhat, keeping his eye out for gulls. He says the falcons rarely kill the seabirds.
“They just scare them away,” Fox says.
Within an hour of entering Metro Central, the material Jones brings from Southeast Portland can be on a truck on its way out of the facility, passing the falcons’ cage just before exiting.
Next stop—North Plains.
It seems a lot more than 21 miles from the oil tanks and chemical plants that surround Metro Central to the fertile, rolling fields that surround the Washington County hamlet of North Plains (pop. 1,947).
Residents of North Plains typically farm or work at either Oregon-Canadian Forest Products, the town’s biggest employer, or in Washington County’s high-tech belt.
But lately, the highest-profile part of North Plains is a 67-acre parcel just north of Sunset Highway called Nature’s Needs.
Nature’s Needs, now owned by Recology, is the third and final leg of Portland’s composting program.
Jon Thomas, the facility’s operations manager, is on the receiving end of the material Stacy Jones picks up curbside and Paul Ehinger grinds and ships. Thomas, 40, is a sturdy engineer who came west to Oregon State University and decided to trade Ohio’s pastures and cornfields for Oregon’s mountains and rivers. Now he finds himself facing a torrent of Portland’s residential organics—and a PR problem.
“Stop the Stink,” reads a roadside sign near the entry to Nature’s Needs.
Some neighbors hate the smell and resent being Portland’s compost bucket.
“The kingdom is shipping the stuff out where the peasants can’t do anything about it,” says Tony Spiering, owner of Valley Machine Service, a high-tech manufacturer located next to Nature’s Needs.
On July 3, the deeply tanned Thomas fretted over a new high-tech compost processing system on which he says Recology has spent “millions,” and also tended to the company’s public-relations issues.
Based on its permit, Recology can accept 50,000 tons of material annually, enough to give each North Plains resident 50,000 pounds of compost.
That avalanche of the sometimes-fragrant city waste has engendered bad blood and hundreds of written odor complaints.
So Thomas needs to tend to public relations as well as processing a never-ending stream of material.
“Who wants to ride in the [Fourth of July parade] and throw candy?” he asked on a recent afternoon, as he handed his 10 dusty employees long-sleeved Recology T-shirts and encouraged them to be visible during North Plains’ Independence Day celebration.
The highlight of that celebration? An elaborate fireworks show launched from Recology’s facility and paid for by the company.
Like Portland’s waste haulers, Recology hoped to have more time to get ready for food composting. At first, the flood of material overwhelmed the plant, leading to odor problems and a temporary reduction in the amount of waste Nature’s Needs was allowed to accept.
“Legislation preceded infrastructure,” Thomas says.
When the program started in October, Nature’s Needs was still transitioning away from being a rudimentary facility that since 1995 handled only yard debris and wood waste.
Now, Thomas says, his operation is taking in about 900 tons a week, most of it from Metro.
Since last fall, Thomas says, Recology has upgraded the facility in an effort to reduce odor.
“Once the material gets here,” he says, “the chefs start to work.”
The “recipe” calls for adjusting the porosity, moisture content, temperature, oxygen and pH balance of the compost.
“It’s a combination of art and science,” Thomas says. Sometimes he gets the formula right, but then the ambient temperature shifts or it rains.
“We have all this heavy technology,” he says, “and then Mother Nature throws us a curveball.”
After trucks from the transfer station dump the compost, a front-loader shapes it into big loaves about 85 feet long, 28 feet wide and 6 feet high. Air pipes about 8 inches in diameter run through the loaves, and tarps are placed over the top.
Fans suck air through the pipes, drawing out moisture as microbial action breaks down the food elements of the compost as it cooks at about 145 degrees. The exhaust is filtered through berms of wood chips that remove more than 95 percent of the odor, Thomas says.
After 15 days, the loaves are “flopped” over, to cook under the tarps for another 15 days. The material then cures for 30 days, gets ground up, sifted, and then sold for $12.50 a cubic yard as certified organic garden compost.
Spiering says he’s noticed some improvement in the smell as Recology upgraded technology.
“It’s gotten somewhat better,” he says. “But I still worry about the long term because the volume will only grow.”
The facility smelled better than Metro’s transfer station, which in turn smelled better than Jones’ truck. On July 3, at least, Nature’s Needs had the aroma of a Christmas tree lot after a rainstorm.
When Chris Fox, the falconer at the Metro Central Transfer Station, wants his birds to return to him, he puts a treat at the end of a string and whirls it in the air. The falcons zoom back for their reward.
The reward for Portlanders who put their table scraps in a green bin and forgo weekly trash pick-up is less dramatic.
But Metro’s Ehinger says the city is on track to divert nearly 90,000 tons of organics next year—that’s 2,900 truckloads of waste that can be sold as compost or burned as hog fuel rather than dumped in a landfill.
The result may be that Jon Thomas of Recology has to have a fire sale on organic compost—he’s already undercutting the competition with his current price—or even give the stuff away. There are worse outcomes.
Stacy Jones, the Cloudburst driver, thinks the initial concerns about composting are over and it’s time to move to the next challenge—how to deal with toxics like paint and chemicals left at curbside.
“I don’t mind what I’m picking up,” he says. “It all pays the same.”