Saving the Planet. Saving You Money.

Evan Manvel

Dumping garbage costs $94 a ton, while dumping organic material costs only $54 a ton.

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.

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    First of all, yes, good job.

    But there's a big missed opportunity.

    Commercial apartment landlords are exempt from being compelled to participating in these programs.

    And. Surprise. They're not volunteering to set up these programs in their complexes.

    As a result almost every apartment renter in Portland is denied the ability to do their part and participate along side rental home tenants and homeowners.

    When is the city going to close the loophole and expand the program so that every apartment renter can easily do their part too?

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    We'll see if that discount ever shows up in the city's collection rates, but at least it's holding the line against labor and fuel overhead.

    Landlords will have a harder time joining the program. They never needed to collect tenants' grass clippings and leaves, so it's not just a matter of putting stuff in a different bin. Compost is an additional waste stream that demands new chutes and/or bins, new hauling contracts, etc. Those aren't capital or administrative costs I'd rush to make, even if it DID save me money over the long run.

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    Like so many things in this city, it seems as if you have to be either totally pro, no matter the cost, or you are assumed to be totally against.

    I think you misstate the complaints--they are mostly about the cost side of the equation. Like with the recent attempts to increase our water bills by $2 for doing something (monthly billing) that we already do, the City put in laudable changes but they always, always seem to cost more money.

    I have no issue with the food waste program, but I find a lot of the implementation flawed, and your (and the City's numbers) misleading.

    IF the new program is saving so much money and IF the stream has reduced so substantially, then explain to me why service has been reduced and my costs remain the same or are increasing?

    We used to get the garbage and blue can weekly, and the green can biweekly. Now we get the blue and (mostly empty) green can weekly and the garbage biweekly. Yet my rates have crept upwards.

    My green can is mostly empty even though we put all food waste in it. It's a waste of time and money to pick it up weekly but I have no choice to opt for a twice a month. My only option is either biweekly garbage or monthly garbage. Where I want to save money is on the green and blue cans--I simply don't need a weekly pickup.

    What I want? A monthly garbage AND a bi-weekly blue and green can. And I expect that should cost me a heck a lot less than the $54 I pay now. But I'm not holding my breath.

    When my water bill actually stops increasing 3-4 times the cost of living, I'll have a heart attack.

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      Paul, again: costs are going up because trucks are being replaced, labor costs are up, fuel costs are up, and recycled goods prices are lower.

      Service has not been reduced. Every two weeks, they still pick up three cans. It's just that in the past, it was two garbage and one yard waste (that couldn't include compost). Now they pick up one garbage and two yard waste (which can include compost).

      And that's what's saving us money. But that's one of several cost factors. So if one cost factor is going down, and the others up, it the end result can be increasing prices. My sense is the biggest cost drivers are trucks and labor.

      As far as your situation, you might want to go in with a neighbor - I have several friends who split curbside service.

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    And for anyone interested in how the costs are set, the City has a nice report here that talks about the various costs, the process of review of waste hauler books by the City auditor and Public Utility Review Board:

    Per the Franchise Agreement, rates are designed to allow haulers to recover legitimate costs of providing service and to provide them the opportunity to reach an operating margin equal to a 9.5% return on revenue.

    It also lays out the wages going up by 4-6%, health care costs going up 13%, and so forth.

    And it compares Portland's rate review process to a basic CPI adjustment since 1992, and finds that we're paying 4.6% less than a basic inflation adjustment law would have set up.

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