There’s been a lot of hubbub about the City of Portland’s decision to dramatically increase composting and yard waste service and move trash pickup to every other week.
My view: it’s a resounding success.
The first available data show the City is hauling 44% less trash. That’s right: over just a few months we’ve cut our trash nearly in half. Those are jaw-dropping numbers.
And here’s the double win: it’s saving you money. Dumping garbage costs $94 a ton, but dumping organic material costs only $54 a ton. Beth Slovic of The Oregonian has a decent Question-and-Answer about the program in yesterday's paper.
A couple of complaints are often repeated:
First, some households say they struggle to fit their trash into their bins. The City has a dozen options for curbside service, running from 20 gallons to 404 gallons to compost pick-up only. For low income residents who have a large amount of health condition-related garbage there’s no charge for larger bins.
Second, some people are struggling to remember which weeks are trash weeks. The city has a fabulous email program that will send you a message the day before service to remind you when garbage days are, or sets up a regular electronic calendar reminder.
There are also a few misleading, common arguments about the program.
Some argue we should have made the program voluntary and allowed people to opt-in. The program is voluntary –- unlike some other cities, there’s no penalty for not composting or recycling. And the idea of weekly trash pickup for some belies a lack of understanding about the cost structure of waste hauling. As noted in Slovic’s piece, if random people opted in or out, “rates would rise by as much as 100 percent... because the cost of running extra garbage routes.” It’s simply not economically feasible for each household to have its own program design.
The second is “the program should have been phased in." Again, there are significant increases in costs that would have come with such a proposal (extra trucks), making it harder for waste haulers and more expensive for consumers. The City ran a pilot program and evaluated it. They brought in increased composting for single-family households. Covering multi-family units and commercial properties can come later (some have participated in a commercial composting program since 2005). And before launching the program the City spent months doing outreach and education to let customers know it was coming.
Finally, there’s the cost issue. Some people are erroneously blaming small increases in trash rates with the shift to composting. Because the City requires trash trucks – a significant source of diesel pollution – to stay within 12 years of the current technology, some aging trucks are being replaced. Higher fuel and labor costs and falling prices for recycled materials also contribute to the rates, which are reviewed and set each year. But the composting program is decreasing costs, not increasing them.
Let’s not forget why we’re doing this. Chris Hagerbaumer at the Oregon Environmental Council laid it out last week on their blog:
Urban food scrap recycling generates a source of rich, diverse and affordable compost that supports organic and sustainable farming. Compost minimizes chemical use, maximizes healthy soil, and reduces the need for irrigation.
Composting also plays a role in protecting our climate. Composting keeps organic material out of landfills. If sent to the landfill, these materials rot and emit methane, a major source of greenhouse gases.
Old habits die hard. But just as we learned to recycle, we’ll learn to compost. And in the end, we'll save money while lowering our environmental impact.
Congratulations to Mayor Adams for championing the program and to the City of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability for carrying it out so well. Bravo.
Disclaimer: I’ve done contract work for the Oregon Environmental Council in the past.