Only in Oregon

By Liz Fisher of Portland, Oregon. Liz works in alumni relations at Lewis & Clark, and is a recovering sustainability consultant. She and her dog, Dora, live it up in the 97214.

RecyclingMy wild friend Alexis threw a party last weekend. She combined all her various friends to welcome a new roommate who moved from Los Angeles to enjoy the finer living found in Portland, Oregon.

Good friends predicted the d├ębut of the new roommate, Chad, would bode well for the future of the household. Mingling among the young professionals, hippies, political types, and strange neighbors, Chad talked about hiking, snowboarding, and the friendly people he'd met since arriving only four days earlier. (Obviously, he knows nothing because good snowboarding doesn't exist in Oregon this year, but that is not the point.) Every cute girl at the party loved Chad's sweet, well behaved black lab. Future plans were made, and some numbers were exchanged.

When the tune "closing time" had played nine times, and only a few close friends remained, Chad began to clean. Trash, plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and left-over food were all thrown into one giant plastic trash bag.

At first everyone stared. They were long, hard, agonizing stares that translated into the action of throwing tomatoes at a bad act. Chad didn't notice. Upon entering the room, Alexis' boyfriend approached the situation delicately. "Yo man. We don't do that here," he said with a smile. "We recycle." It was a polite statement that meant to clue him in. He could have been saying "Welcome to the block Buddy, the trash gets picked up on Thursday." But Chad wasn't listening. He dismissed Alexis' boyfriend with a flick of his head.

One of the good friends, one of those who had been staring long and hard, interrupted, "You see... we separate things that can be recycled. I'm from New York. I know. It's strange. It's just what we do." It was assumed that he knew how to recycle. The benefits of recycling seemed clear. Isn't it a topic that is introduced in elementary school? It was fifteen years ago when I was in elementary school in rural Pennsylvania.

Chad looked like he'd mysteriously switched planets. Aliens must have transferred him from Earth to Portlandia where fools were telling him that he hadn't done it right. The drinks from earlier that evening weren't helping his rationale; Chad took the suggestions as a challenge. Despite his obvious frustration, he offered a conciliatory statement. "Yeah, I get it. Recycling. The bums like to pick the cans out the trash. They take the cans for money. It'll get recycled."

One of the cuter girls he had been flirting with said flatly, "No, you don't get it. We separate our cans and bottles so the bums don't have to dig through the trash. Why make it hard on them? Oh, and here in Oregon, we call them street people."

True story.

  • Jay (unverified)

    I don't think I would have had a good time at your party.

  • brad (unverified)

    I would have had a blast, so invite me instead of Jay. :-) Seriously, this was as funny a post as I have read in a while, and so true. I have to re-educate my mother in law every time she visits. They say "people are different here," and this story proves, again, that that's not really a bad thing.

  • Edward (unverified)

    There's something about the story that I find just a little bit fishy. California has a law, passed years ago, that mandates reductions in landfill use and encourages waste handlers to provide for recycling.

    From what I remember of California in the late 90's, that law made service for even the smallest trash can pretty expensive. The caveat though was that you could recycle as much as you wanted. Although my experiences were focused around the bay area (from Santa Cruz to Sonoma), I still have a vague notion that they recycle in L.A.

    Maybe the problem is that with all the different recycling efforts going on, supply of recycled goods is up, while demand is fairly static. That might mean that paying the fines is more cost effective than recycling at a loss.

    Let me guess, Chad just graduated from college where they didn't have recycling.

  • (Show?)

    Ooh, Edward - you had to hammer on UCLA, didn't you? (not that I mind - I sneer at 'em, too, especially during hoop season) But unless SC doesn't recycle, either, you know Kari, the World's Most Motivated Trojan will be all over that.

    I've known some other people who moved up from SoCal, and almost to a person among them, it's been serious culture shock in the beginning, even for the most progressive among them. And a few couldn't get used to the "way we do things here" at all, and thus, didn't stay in the Rose City.

    Chad's reaction to the verdict of his jury of peers doesn't surprise me at all; what does surprise me is that no one at the party (from what I'm reading) physically pitched in to help set Chad straight until after Chad had accomplished his version of cleanup.

    If the party's for Chad, how is it that the hosts, for one, weren't grabbing the recycle box or whatever and snagging the empty bottles before Chad could mix them in with the food waste?

    And it's obviously not blanket-statement true of all Angelenos who move here, but there's this attitude among many of the ones I've known, that I'd have to describe as egomaniac-lite. As if they truly believed that the world revolved around them, or that their tremendous personal sacrifice of moving to B.F.E. should be respected, even worshipped, but they wouldn't make the mistake of actually saying so in polite company, instead hinting around it.

    I compare it to how I think of Idaho. Except I'd be Chad in reverse.

    "Where do you put the recycling?"

    "What the hell are you talkin' bout? This ain't France!"

  • Anne Dufay (unverified)

    I liked the writing, too.

    As a native Californian I would just point out - plenty of Oregonians could be just as blind to recycling ethics as Chad. Maybe they wouldn't hail from Portland (though they might, don't be too smug folks), but then no one said where Chad was from, either. California's a big state. Even bigger than Oregon...

    Me, I cut my green ethic's teeth in California. Also my water-conserving knee-jerk reaction to over-flushing... We may need to ask for some lessons on that up here in O-re-gone, come this summer...

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    Even Republicans recycle in Oregon

  • Suzii (unverified)

    "California has a law, passed years ago, that mandates reductions in landfill use and encourages waste handlers to provide for recycling."

    Nope, it's true, recycling gets overlooked in California.

    I helped my brother move out of his apartment last fall and was shocked at the stuff we had to throw out. His apartment complex had tried recycling bins five years ago, but gave up because people kept dumping garbage in them. There wasn't a waste transfer station around that would take recycling, either. And Goodwill looked at me like I was crazy for offering them a fully functional leather recliner with some wear on the arms -- they couldn't possibly sell something so ratty!

    And this wasn't L.A. or Bakersfield or Fresno; it was in the heart of the Bay Area, just outside of Berkeley. Apparently the financial incentives aren't enough if the cultural attitude isn't there.

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    Try this for bizarre culture shock... when I moved from Portland to DC, I discovered that DC sucks at recycling. Sure it's here, but it generally means that people casually put aluminum in a bin, but all too often that bin gets thrown in with the regular trash when maintenance comes around (at least in one office building I am intimately familiar with). Watching cans and bottles go into the regular trash in the office, street corners, etc. has been a real change of pace when you're used to recylcing three different catgories of paper at curbside in Sellwood. Sure there's economics involved, but there is absolutely a culture and value-set to it that I think Portland has that other cities do not.

  • Becky (unverified)

    Shame on all of you. You'd rather make someone feel small than allow a few cans and bottles to go unrecycled. In the big picture, I think the cans and bottles from your party don't matter one whit, but what about your new friend? Couldn't you have let it go at the time and filled him in privately later, or better yet, allowed him to see for himself how it's done here and given him a chance to retain his dignity? He was doing what he thought was a magnanimous act - cleaning up after the rest of you - and instead of being grateful you had to put him down. I guess for his sake he's lucky he found out your true colors before getting involved with one of your snooty girlfriends.

  • Anne Dufay (unverified)

    Come on guys. I love Portland as much as the next person, but really...

    In Oregon we do little pilot programs here in Portland on co-mingled curbside residential recyling. In California it is the practice, and has been for years, in most major metropolitan areas.

    In Oregon we have no statewide e-cycling setup. California is the national leader in this field.

    This year is the first in over 20 years of working in this city where I've worked in a building with recyling for everything, not just paper.

    Look in the garbage cans on any city street corner - bottles, plastic, paper, trash.

    Please don't tell me you really believe there is no place to take recyling in the SF Bay area.

    Here in Portland Goodwill recently turned down our donation of some quite nice bedroom furniture. We set it by our garage to try and find a place to take the next day, and it was gone in the morning...

    Apartment buildings are typically the least complient with recyling goals, yes, even here in Portland...

    "Everybody" does not recycle in Portland. We grow our own Chads right here at home. I know this for a fact, and not just because our recycling statistics are not at 100%... Sometimes recycling-virgins come to visit at our house, often they are friends of our youngest son, and, Becky has a point - we try, with courtesy, to show them where to put stuff.

    I agree we are more "recyling-conscious" here in Portland than in many many places. But, again, come on. Complacency is a bitch. It's nice to know we're ahead of DC, and probably all of Florida and most of the South (just guessing, of course) but smuggness and complacency lead to stagnation. Folks on this forum should be out in front, pushing for state-wide e-cycling legislation.

    After all, we don't want folks in California to be telling tales about their visit to Oregon and how, can you believe it, it's so backward there there is nowhere to throw your dead laptop but in the landfill...

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    Anne... Take your laptop to and they'll fix it up and give it to a deserving kid.

    Also, while it may true that Cali has the programs in place - in my experience far fewer folks actually do the recycling that's available to them.

    Can we talk about how it's been a nickel deposit for YEARS now? If the deposit had kept up with inflation, it'd be over a quarter now.

  • Anne Dufay (unverified)

    Kari, I know all about Free Geek. They are here in Portland and we always use them when we do neighborhood cleanups.

    What do folks do who live in Coos Bay? How about Eastern Oregon?

    We need statewide solutions for this one or access to these opportunities will remain very lopsided and statewide most Oregon e-waste will continue to go into the landfills.

    I agree that "Portlanders" recycle at a higher rate than "Californians". But folks in the California city I come from recycle just as much as folks here do. And more, no doubt, than folks in many other areas of Oregon.

    Anyway, my point is not that we are not admirable, but rather that we've gotten a little too smug about it.

    As for the 5 cents, I'd rather see pressure put on retailers to not limit the refunds they'll accept at a time. My kids like to take bottles back when they can get a real return, only to be told they've brought too much back, and the store doesn't allow people to bring in that much at a time. (Our local Safeway caps it at $7.00) An attempt to keep "street people" from using their facilities. What a laugh, every time we go the majority of people there are "street people."...

  • Christy (unverified)

    As a fairly recent CA transplant, I thought that it was strange that the recycling people here are so picky. I recently got a pretty hateful "last warning" for not separating glass from aluminum. I never knew that they two were supposed to be separate. And I thought I was a great recycler.

  • Anne Dufay (unverified)

    Here's a link to a study by OSD on the our own home-grown Portland "Chads", where they tend to live, and how to work to encourage greater participation by these folks in our recyling system.

    No one will be surprised to learn how much education re recyling has to do with participation in the program.

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    As for the nickel, the idea is simply to provide incentive to bring the darned things back - you give 'em a nickel when you get your beer, and when you bring the bottle back, you get it back. Adding a buck fifty on a six-pack is a little steep, even considering inflation. Though the cans and bottles would find their way back to the retailer a lot faster. Maybe a dime, like Maine. A dime would be good.

    As for the cap... that started years ago when we didn't have Can-Do machines. I worked for Safeway for years when I was in college and saw the the not-so-pretty side of recycling. The majority of people who handle the recyclables are kids - no say in anything, they just do it for minimum wage. They got cheap, flimsy plastic gloves which could never protect them from some of the things that were found in those bags - broken glass being the least of it. We're talking needles (yes, used hypodermic needles), dirty diapers, and my personal favorite - a live frog (yes, really - a live frog). Not that the frog was the biggest health risk, but c'mon - a frog? It was truly a disgusting job. The law allowing retailers to set limits was put in place to prevent some of this from happening. It didn't, obviously, but someone was trying. Now that people are responsible for their own can counting, they should lift the limit. Though you wouldn't catch me at the Can-Do machine putting 144 cans and bottles in one at a time. That could literally take all day!

    Oh and... you know Kari, the World's Most Motivated Trojan

    Motivated? Is that what you call that? Is that the PC word for "obsessive?" ;-) Sorry, Kari... couldn't resist.

  • (Show?)

    I'm really not that obsessive/motivated. I'm at one end of the normal range. Y'all just don't know that many USC alumni, do ya?

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    Anne writes <<<< As for the 5 cents, I'd rather see pressure put on retailers to not limit the refunds they'll accept at a time. My kids like to take bottles back when they can get a real return...<<<

    As the guy trying to get "Anne's" kids to take the cans and bottles back --and the one who paid the deposit in the first place-- yeah...four or five dollars worth of returns ISN'T enough to motivate the little ones. (Whereas I remember, growing up on Long Island in the fifties, a trip to one of the many construction sites in our neighborhood would quickly net me the returnable bottles to buy a ten-cent Superman comic. What's a nickel buy these days? Or even a buck?)

    Still..we have "street people" going through our curbside recyclables, just as they go through garbage cans downtown. And as a parent who's balked at dropping off a twelve-year old among a group of these entrepeneurs dominating the recycling machine area at Fred Meyer's...maybe the time's come to forget the deposits, and let us recycle our cans and botttles at the curb along with our regular recyclables.

    Really? And give up the joy of putting the same empty bottle of Brideport through the recycling machines three times before it indeed takes the damn thing instead of spitting it out, as though I were trying to pull a fast one for my nickel.

    What? And forego the embarassment of shamelessly --what WAS I thinking?-- trying to return a Freddie's house brand soda can into the Safeway recycling machinery. The guilt I feel as I toss the can into the garbage hoping it will just...go...away.

    Or? As the machine keeps refusing to accept my empty Moosedrool bottle? WHERE did I buy that?

    I think the time has come to drop the deposits once and for all. Recycling works best when its, frankly, easy...and if you've never stood outside the Freddy's recycling "center" in the rain finding you have a plastic bag half full of sticky Albertson's cans you're trying to sort on the sidewalk, while guys in torn jackets smoking cigarettes gently mock your pathetic fumbling...

    There's better ways to do this.

    Frank Dufay

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    I'm really not that obsessive/motivated. I'm at one end of the normal range. Y'all just don't know that many USC alumni, do ya?

    No, I don't... if you're in the "normal" range, I think I'm grateful. ;-) And there are a few stories I could tell that might challenge that statement, but... for your sake, I'll let it go. hehe.

  • Suzii (unverified)

    Anne: "Please don't tell me you really believe there is no place to take recyling in the SF Bay area."

    Well, no, I couldn't believe it, either. I called every city and county agency listed under "Recycling" in three different Yellow Pages. For a basic mixed-paper drop, the sort we make at curbside here, we had to drive 30 miles, arrive between 10 and 4:30 (and we actually saw them closing at 4:15), and pay because their advertising turned out to be a lie -- they weren't recycling; they were just a landfill intake.

    I know there are Californians who do a good job of recycling. They have my infinite admiration.

  • Suzii (unverified)

    Oh, and the other thing California does that's smart is include fruit juice (the V-8 people somehow managed to get vegie juice excluded) and tea and water containers in their deposit program.

    And for you people who think redeeming them is too much work and you should just be allowed to put them in your curbside bin? Um... you are, in fact, allowed to just put them in the bin. You could separate them out so that somebody who wants to cash them in can do so easily and bless your house, but you don't have to.

  • (Show?)

    Suzii writes <<< And for you people who think redeeming them is too much work and you should just be allowed to put them in your curbside bin? Um... you are, in fact, allowed to just put them in the bin. You could separate them out so that somebody who wants to cash them in can do so easily and bless your house, but you don't have to. <<<

    Actually you are not suppossed to put deposit cans and bottles out at the curb. And even if you were, and did, do we really want to encourage people pushing stolen shopping carts coming through our neighborhoods in the morning, rooting through our recyclables?

    There are better ways to address poverty then putting out cans and bottles for the poor at the curb.

    And there's better ways to have our kids feel positive about recycling then have them go through a dirty, nasty --and often creepy-- ritual they come to dislike and avoid.

    Frank Dufay

  • (Show?)

    I put my refundable cans and bottles at the curb. They are in a separate container from my recycling and are retrieved and (presumably)redeemed by the Waste Management drivers.

    Since I live 35 miles SE of Portland and 8 miles SE of Sandy, it's not about the bums (er, homeless). It's about me being unwilling to jump through the purposely difficult hoops required to recycle at supermarkets as mentioned earlier in this thread by Frank.

  • (Show?)

    I put my refundable cans and bottles at the curb. They are in a separate container from my recycling and are retrieved and (presumably)redeemed by the Waste Management drivers.

    Pat, I may be cynical, but I bet the waste management folks are sending your cans and bottle to the landfill. In the back of my mind I am remembering a recent mini-scandal when it was found that one Portland waste management company was throwing away recyclable materials rather than process them for recycling. Anybody remember the details?

  • brad (unverified)

    I've never thought the recycling ritual was particularly onerous. My young son and I generally take the returnables back to the local grocery store after they have overtaken a corner of the garage. Last time, we had just about finished shoving all of the items into the various collection machines and had gotten our scrip to cash in when a guy in his mid-30s came in looking worn and tired. He was a little too clean to be one of the homeless recycling regulars that frequent the place. He had several large bags of cans, and pretty soon a young girl 12 or so, came in with another bag. We struck up a conversation about what a pain it is to have to return certain items back to the store where they were purchased originally, and how stupid it is that there's a deposit on beer and pop, but not on juice/snapple/gatorade/etc. Turns out the guy's friends and neighbors were all contributing their recyclables to help his family pay for costs he and his wife were having to pay out of pocket for his youngest daughter's cancer treatments. Needless to say, the few dollars my son and I had gleaned from the machines seemed like a small contribution indeed.

  • the prof (unverified)

    Actually, what has made me aggressively recycle is the amount of money I pay each week for my trash can. If I overflow, I pay more.

    Financial incentives work wonders.

    (As to the comment about glass and alumninum, this is a known dilemma in recycling. Fact is, glass recycling is actually not energy efficient. And broken glass screws up the "intermingled" blend (paper, metal, plastic) that constitutes more recycling streams. Finally, glass is a pretty good addition to the solid waste stream precisely because it does not break down. So why do we continue to recycle glass? It's all psychological--glass was the first thing we all learned to recycle, and advocates fear pulling it out of the recycling stream because people will begin to doubt the benefits of recycling generally. The NUMBER ONE item to recycle by the way: paper!!)

  • Anne Dufay (unverified)

    I remember the "mini-scandal" Leslie is referring to. I think it was about 5 or 6 years ago. I don't remember which hauler it was, but they'd been doing it for awhile. It was pretty blatant, but not too surprising.

    Re the folks who were donating their cans to a family in medical crises -- I had a friend in a similar situation -- so if you're thinking that sounds like a good idea, think again. There are two things families in that situation are most short of: money, and time.

    If you really want to help, set up a schedule of who on the block will bring dinner to them on what day. Take the other kids (if there are siblings) somewhere extra special, because they are bound to be feeling sad, scared, resentful of lost parental attention, and guilty about the resentment.

    Pass the hat, everyone pitch in $10.00 and then someone go do a big grocery shopping, and drop the stuff off at their house.

    Set up a bank account to take donations towards medical expenses.

    Don't give them your cans to recycle for you. (Of course they'll take them, and be grateful, and add that one more thing to their to-do list, and blame themselves for being even more tired and overstretched and cranky and all the rest of it...) If you really want to do something for them around cans, take the cans in yourself. You don't have a sick child to take to chemo.

  • (Show?)

    glass recycling is actually not energy efficient

    Prof, it would be tremendously energy efficient if they didn't feel they had to melt it all down and re-blow it every time it cycled. Back in the day, the bottles went back where they came from and were washed, sanitized, sterilized, and refilled.

    Now that's recycling.

  • Ruth (unverified)

    When I've visited relatives in LA, they had one giant recycling bin in which everything recyclable is commingled (and yes they did use it!). Same in S.F. So I imagine Chad was a bit of an anomaly just as there are folks here in Portland who don't recycle, either.

    As for bottle returns, I long ago traded the sticky, stinky, annoying bottle return machine ordeal for simply taking the bottles to a store that has a designated bin for donating your returnables (Wild Oats and New Seasons and Lamb's Thriftway all have bins designated for local schools.) All you have to do is drop the bags of bottles/cans into the bin and walk away happily, knowing that a few bucks is oing to a good cause. It's well worth it--a huge stress reducer.

  • (Show?)

    Ruth writes <<< As for bottle returns, I long ago traded the sticky, stinky, annoying bottle return machine ordeal for simply taking the bottles to a store that has a designated bin for donating your returnables...<<<

    An excellent, excellent solution. I've actually done that on occasion, but never when I have the mega-quantities of empty coke cans that threaten to bury us. I'll have to try that and see if the stores object.

    For a while too I thought it important Anne's and my boys accept the "responsibility" for dealing with their soda consumption...but with all the sleepovers, and teenagers hanging out, its become too much of an ordeal all around.

    In the final analysis I think we've reached the tipping point (sorry, tips are another thread) where nickel deposits aren't the solution anymore...but in the interim, a place to drop off these recyclables off for a good cause is a really good idea.

    Frank Dufay

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