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Periodically turning over the compost windrows at the Portland (Ore.) Office of Transportation's Sunderland Recycling Facility assists in the decomposition process. Photos: City of Portland
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Leaves from street-sweeping debris collected by the Portland (Ore.) Office of Transportation is piled into windrows, where they decompose until they become usable compost.

For more than 20 years, the city of Portland, Ore.'s Office of Transportation (PDOT) has experimented with recycling techniques—collecting paper, composting leaves, recycling construction debris, etc. Their trials paid off in fiscal year 2006-07, to the tune of nearly $3.6 million.

During that time, 57,880 cubic yards of waste (leaves from Portland's street sweepers, and concrete and asphalt from construction) were collected at the city's Sunderland Recycling Facility. In addition to diverting the material from the landfill, the agency avoided almost $4 million in costs from hauling expenses, disposal fees, and use of virgin product. It also generated about $133,000 from sales of recycled products. Considering the program cost only about $540,000 to administer, the benefits are clear.

Driving Forces

While Portland has a long history of recycling, a report issued in 1992 served as the catalyst for major change. Several factors emerged that influenced the city's progressive recycling policies:

  • PDOT's landfill was rapidly reaching capacity.
  • Disposal rates at private landfills were accelerating at an alarming rate.
  • The number of available disposal sites were diminishing.
  • Dwindling natural resources placed added emphasis on reuse of materials.
  • The twin forces of escalating disposal costs and expansion of available, proven recycling technology made stepped-up recycling efforts look more appealing.

Finally, a large push came from city employees themselves.

“PDOT employees were becoming increasingly interested in recycling and material reuse,” says program manager Jill Jacobsen. “They provided management with many practical and innovative ideas for recycling processes.”

From the mid-1980s to 1996, PDOT conducted recycling at three separate locations. In an effort to consolidate activities, the department bought the 20-acre Sunderland Recycling Facility site for $3 million in 1997 and began composting leaves there in 1998. Rock-crushing and screening operations moved to the site in 2002. Success in all those areas moved the department to acquire an additional, adjacent 14-acre parcel of land in October 2004, for $2.4 million.

“This second property adds capacity for current programs, and it provides opportunities for savings and revenue for new programs,” says Jacobsen.

Trying New Things

In 1994, PDOT tried contracting its composting program out to a private operator. Because the firm's maintenance of the equipment and composting site didn't meet standards, PDOT declined to renew the contract and took composting back into its own hands.

Since it has full control of its composting and recycling operations, PDOT is free to try new things, and to reap the benefits of its successful experiments.

For example, in 2005, the agency launched a pilot program to determine the viability of various treatment and reuse options of the 25,000 cubic yards of street-sweeping debris it collects each year. The material is piled into windrows, turned over periodically to facilitate decomposition, and will be used as compost around the city. In October 2006, the project garnered the Julian Prize for Sustainability from the American Public Works Association's Oregon chapter. Eight months later, the Oregon Department of Economic and Community Development saluted the street-sweeping composting program with its Focus Award for Government.