It’s not unusual for Far West Fibers to find trash in the recycling material collected from Portland’s curbside bins.
The company handles three-quarters of the curbside recycling for the city of Portland, and 2.5 percent of what it takes in ends up going to a landfill: Fake flowers, wigs, window shades and garden hoses are a few of the garbage items dumped off by trucks hauling supposedly recyclable materials to the Far West Fibers sorting facility in Northeast Portland.
But the piles of dirty diapers – about 120 pounds per day – are new.
“It started when the city went to every other week garbage pickup,” said Far West Fibers President Keith Ristau. “Prior to that you’d get a dirty diaper maybe once a month. Now we get 60 pounds per shift. It’s not pretty.”
When the city of Portland launched its curbside composting program in October 2011, it simultaneously reduced trash pickups from once a week to once every two weeks. But recycling and compost bins are still emptied weekly.
In the following year, the volume of garbage collected from residential curbsides dropped by 38 percent, but the city also sent reprimanding letters to 3,000 households that were caught putting trash in their recycling bins.
Sixty pounds of dirty diapers per 10-hour shift at Far West Fibers is actually an improvement over the 90 pounds of dirty diapers per shift the company was sorting out before the city started working with recycling haulers to tag the carts with diapers and other garbage in them.
Last March, the city started sending letters to people who were putting trash in their recycling bins – presumably because their garbage cans were full and weren’t scheduled to be emptied for another week.
Everything that comes into the Far West Fibers sorting facility goes onto a series of conveyor belts, where large cardboard is separated from smaller items and employees pluck out plastics, glass, aluminum cans and garbage.
“In the grand scheme of things, the amount of dirty diapers we get is an extremely small percentage, but it’s by far the most disgusting percentage,” said Ristau. “It’s never a good idea to expose your employees to dirty diapers. It’s nothing I ever thought I’d have to do, nor do I want to keep doing it.”
Michael Armstrong, senior sustainability manager for the city of Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, said the city switched to every other week garbage pickup in part to control costs as the curbside composting program started up and in part because weekly pickup wouldn’t be as essential if the smelly food scraps were being picked up every week.
Overall, he said, the switch to curbside composting and fewer trash pickups has been a success, with a major drop in garbage going to landfills and a major increase in compostable material being recycled.
“There have been some issues, and the increase in contamination that Far West Fibers has experienced has been one of them,” he said. “We can see people adjusting to the new program. They want that to go away, so they put it in the can that’s going to get picked up every week.”
The amount of trash in recycling and compost bins has decreased since the city started working with haulers to notify non-complying households.
“We do not want those diapers in there, for sure,” said Armstrong. “I know it can be kind of striking to see – Oh my God, that’s a dirty diaper – but as a percentage amount it’s very, very small. It’s a small problem, but it’s one that we take seriously.”
The city has also provided free upgrades to larger trash cans for people who have medical conditions that cause them to create more garbage, such as adult diapers.