Should Portland trash their waste removal program?

Like most Portlanders, I have my share of gripes about the city’s trash removal program which, according to the city, is called the “Pay as you Throw Waste Reduction Program”.

The bags are too expensive, too small and they rip too easily. The recycling bins that the city issues are also too small, and for some reason they have no covers on them, so empty bottles and cardboard are consistently blown throughout the streets on trash day.

I’ve been thinking about doing a story on Portland’s trash removal for a while now, but last week was finally given the motivation to follow through on the idea.

A childhood friend of mine named Gina Kostopoulos (formerly Gina Axelson), posted an interesting picture to Facebook this past Friday.


The picture is of a city trash bag that was deemed by the collector to be too heavy. As it says right on the bag, the limit for the bags is 30 pounds, and the last thing I would want to do is rag on a blue collar worker for doing his/her job as instructed, but according to Kostopoulos the bag was originally in the bottom of her trash barrel.

She posed the question next to the picture, The trash man can remove my bag from the bottom of my trash can to the curb, but cannot lift it into the truck?”

In a separate conversation via Facebook messenger, she elaborated:

“I understand that they have rules, but who reads the bag before they fill it with trash? I feel like it’s just a way for them to get more money out of the residents of Portland. We pay for removal, pay $10 for the bags, and then have to waste the bag because their rules aren’t precisely followed.”

“Tuesday morning I put my trash barrels and my recycling bins on the curb, I have a lot of both as I run a home daycare. I certainly didn’t weigh my trash before I put it in the barrel, but if I, a 28 year old woman, can lift the bag into the trash can, and it doesn’t rip, I don’t think it is crazy for me to think that the trash man can do the same.” 

“Both of my trash barrels and my recycling bins were scattered around the street and sidewalks, and one of my bags, the one with diapers, and other food type garbage was placed nicely on the curb with a big orange sticker on it.”

 After speaking with Kostopoulos, I put a call in to the city to get their take on the issue. After being redirected four times trying to find someone to comment, I finally landed on the city’s Environmental Programs Manager, Troy Moon.

Moon was careful with his words, but very helpful and friendly. He explained that while he knows it’s not a perfect system, since the Pay as you Throw program was implemented in 1999, Portland’s annual waste has dropped from twenty-three thousand tons per year down to about nine thousand tons per year. On the flip side, recycling has gone up from about one thousand tons per year to roughly six thousand tons per year.

Still, while it’s clear that the overall goal of the program is working, Moon was willing to admit that there’s room for improvement:

“One of the things that I don’t like about our recycling bins is that they don’t have a cover, so they’re open to the elements.”

When asked why the city doesn’t simply re-issue new bins with covers he responded, “We actually are looking at some options. The city recommended in a report a couple of years ago that we look at a cart based recycling system. So hopefully we’ll have more information on that later in the year.”

For those unfamiliar with “cart based systems”, Moon was referring to the big bins with wheels on them that places like South Portland use for their waste removal.

trash2When asked why a recommendation, that by all accounts seems like a great idea, and was made two years ago, is still so far away from even being seriously considered, Moon explained that it comes down to finances:

“Each cart costs about $60, and we would need about twenty-five thousand of them, so I’ll let you do the math.”

The math comes out to a suddenly not-so-sweet-sounding $1.5 million.

So while it’s frustrating to see city hall take so long just to come to a decision on the issue, it’s understandable that they’re hesitant to spend all that money on trash cans.

Still, Kostopoulos has a legitimate gripe and she deserves a better solution than she’s getting.

When I asked Moon what he recommended Kostopoulos do about her problem, he suggested she contact the program’s compliance officer, Suzanne Hunt and resolve it through her.

He also explained, “We try to be lenient, so depending on the circumstances the compliance officer might be able to have the bag and its contents disposed of as is, but another solution is to spread the contents out amongst other bags.”

Fair enough, but it’s a bit harder to understand where the city is coming from when you’re put in Kostopoulos’ position.

Kostopoulos summarized, “I get the point, but a.) my bag with the big sticker is wasted, b.) I have to house dirty diapers for another week, and c.) If the efforts of the blue bag is to reduce waste, they seem to be contradicting themselves by slapping the sticker on it and making me provide another bag.”

When asked how frequently this sort of thing happens, Moon replied, “We don’t track that sort of thing, but it’s certainly a daily occurrence- probably at least a few each day.” 

So it’s a darn good thing for all of us that of “at least a few each day”, not many of them are daycare owners with loads of soiled diapers like Kostopoulos, but it probably wouldn’t hurt if more people followed suit with her planned course of action:

“I’m not about to rip the bag open and go rummaging through it. So next trash day, I will meet them outside and lift the bag into the truck myself so that they don’t have to.”

Like so many other issues, if the city is going to just ignore the problem, it’s on us to speak out for a change.

In other words, to borrow from one of the commentators on Kostopoulos’ Facebook photo, “You go girl.” 

Chris Shorr

About Chris Shorr

Chris is a sixth generation Portlander who loves all things Maine. He has worked with mentally ill and marginalized adults at a Portland non-profit, on a lobster boat in Casco Bay, at several high-end Portland restaurants, and at a local meat packing plant. He also ran for Portland City Council in 2013, wrote a weekly column in the now defunct Portland Daily Sun, and currently writes a weekly column in The Portland Phoenix.