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History of Portland's garbage and recycling system

Key policies, programs, and plans that shaped how the City of Portland manages and reduces waste. Details the evolution of Portland's garbage, recycling, and compost collection system from the 1950s to the present.

Early efforts

Until recycling was adopted as state policy in the 1980s, Portland’s garbage collection system was essentially unregulated by the City. It was a free-market system in which privately owned garbage companies competed for residential and business customers.

As of the mid-1950s, there were around 250 companies operating in Portland. By 1989, the count was 112. By 2024, there were 9 franchised residential collection companies and around 25 permitted commercial collection companies.

Recycling policy emerges

In 1983, the Oregon legislature mandated that every community set up a system to provide residents and businesses the opportunity to recycle. Each local community was required to design and implement a system that was appropriate for its particular geography, population distribution, population density, and distance to recycling markets. The rate charged for collecting material for recycling could not exceed the rate charged for the collection of garbage.

Portland establishes its first recycling system

In 1987, Portland began requiring all garbage and recycling companies to offer recycling service to their customers. For residential customers (those customers in single-family homes through four-plexes), the requirements included weekly collection of newspapers and monthly collection of metals, glass jars, corrugated cardboard, office paper, and used motor oil. 

For commercial customers (businesses and multifamily communities with five or more units), the requirement included collecting any of the above materials from any interested business or multifamily residence customer. 

At the time, not many businesses or multifamily communities recycled. However, companies that generated large quantities of cardboard, metals, and office paper were enthusiastic about recycling.

Residential franchise system implemented

In 1991, the Oregon legislature adopted the Opportunity to Recycle Act to increase residential collection frequency, add more recyclable materials, and offer better recycling opportunities and incentives for multifamily residences and businesses.

In 1992, Portland adopted a franchise system to meet the Opportunity to Recycle Act requirements for residents in single-family, duplex, tri-plex, and four-plex housing. For commercial services, the business community and some waste haulers expressed a strong desire to retain a free market system so a permitted system without assigned territories was established. 

The Residential Franchise Agreement, still in place today, assigned Portland garbage and recycling companies serving residential customers to specific areas of the city. When this system first started, there were 69 residential garbage and recycling companies. In 2024, there are 9.

Commercial recycling changes

The residential franchise system immediately showed excellent results, so in 1993, City solid waste and recycling staff turned their attention to the commercial sector, which generated about 75 percent of Portland’s remaining garbage. Staff began working with Portland’s business and multifamily owners to find ways to increase recycling.  The result was a policy adopted in 1996 that required commercial customers to recycle at least 50 percent of their waste. In 1997, the Portland City Council also set a goal for the commercial sector to recycle 60 percent of its waste by 2005.

Through the garbage and recycling companies, the City provided every business customer with printed information about the 50 percent recycling requirement, and required that every customer sign a commitment to recycle at least 50 percent of their waste, specifying which materials they would recycle. The City established authority to assess a fine to businesses that do not meet this goal. The intent of the fine is to encourage compliance, not to raise money. As such, City regulations provide for an “assistance period” of 30 days, with free technical assistance and resources provided to businesses to achieve compliance instead of immediately assessing penalty for noncompliance.

Portland did not meet the 2005 goal of 60 percent recycling for the commercial sector. Additional programs and plans were developed to facilitate reaching this and other waste reduction and recycling goals.

In 2009, Metro initiated the Enhanced Dry Waste Recovery Program (EDWRP) which requires that all construction and demolition materials be processed at a material recovery facility. This ensures that recyclable materials such as wood, cardboard, and metal are removed before disposal.

Portland Composts! Program

In early 2005, the City of Portland developed the Portland Composts! Program to require every garbage and recycling company to offer composting collection to businesses that request the service. In 2021, almost 1400 accounts were participating in the Portland Composts! Program; up from 700 in 2011.

Portland Recycles! Plan

In 2006, the City Council adopted a resolution directing City staff to prepare and submit to the Council a solid waste management plan. This required staff to conduct a planning process to solicit input from the public and stakeholders in developing proposed plan elements. The Plan included recommendations for both the residential and commercial sectors as well as City government operations. City Council unanimously adopted the plan in 2007. These adopted recommendations include:

  • increasing the citywide recycling rate to 75 percent by 2015.
  • reducing toxics and greenhouse gases.
  • achieving zero growth in the waste stream.
  • making the waste management system as a whole more sustainable.

Since October 2011, all residences with curbside collection are provided weekly recycling and composting (yard debris and food scraps) collection and every-other-week garbage collection. A year into the new curbside collection system, 38 percent less residential waste was headed to the landfill and three times more yard debris and food scraps were turned into compost.

For commercial customers, the plan called for a new mandatory recycling requirement for all businesses in the city, which Portland implemented in 2008.

The Plan recommended increasing the mandatory recycling requirement for construction and demolition debris from 50 to 75 percent for specified projects.

Through the framework of the Portland Recycles! Plan, BPS worked to ensure that multifamily residents were provided the opportunity to recycle. In 2004, working closely with commercial haulers, BPS piloted a direct outreach campaign to multifamily owners and managers to increase recycling through the implementation of centralized recycling. By 2012, Portland had increased and improved recycling participation at all multifamily complexes as well as assisted property managers with implementing food scrap collection at interested complexes.

The plan also required piloting public recycling containers. In 2011, about 300 containers were placed in the downtown transit mall. Garbage containers adjacent to recycling containers showed a significant decrease in the amount of recyclable materials sent to the landfill. 

Climate Action Plan

In 2009, City Council adopted the Climate Action Plan, a strategy to put Portland and Multnomah County on a path to achieve a 40 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050 (compared to 1990 levels). The plan included three goals for 2030 relating to consumption and solid waste and identified a number of actions to achieve these goals: 

  • Reduce total solid waste generated by 25 percent.
  • Recover 90 percent of all waste generated.
  • Reduce the greenhouse gas impacts of the waste collection system by 40 percent. 

Clean Fleet Policy

In 2006, Portland City Council required garbage and recycling companies to replace diesel trucks made before 2010 with newer models by 2025, to reduce pollution. The future of the clean fleet policy will depend on the availability and performance of electric trucks, which will build on this policy and further reduce emissions. Read more.

Side Guard Safety Requirement

In 2019, BPS piloted the use of side guards on garbage and recycling trucks to reduce the danger to bicyclists, wheelchair users, and pedestrians in the case of collision. After the pilot, Portland City Council approved a requirement for all garbage and recycling trucks to have side guards by 2023. They also adopted a grant program to assist garbage and recycling companies to retrofit side guards on all trucks. Read more.

Deconstruction Requirement 

On July 6, 2016, Portland City Council adopted an ordinance, including code language, which requires certain projects seeking a demolition permit to be fully deconstructed as opposed to mechanically demolished. With Council’s unanimous approval of that ordinance, Portland became the first city in the country to ensure that valuable materials are salvaged for reuse instead of crushed and landfilled. Building on the success of the initial ordinance, Portland City Council adopted an amendment on November 13, 2019, which raises the year-built threshold from 1916 to 1940. The amendment went into effect January 20, 2020. Read more

Public Trash Can Expansion  

In 2016, the Portland City Council adopted an increase to the solid waste commercial tonnage for the expansion of the public trash program. The expansion will add trash cans and collection service into regional, town, and neighborhood centers as delineated in the 2035 City of Portland Comprehensive Plan.  

In June of 2017, Portland’s Jade District was the first to receive new trash receptacles as part of a pilot project to evaluate the performance of a new can design, graphics, and can placement. The program has since expanded into East Portland, with the addition of over 200 new trash cans.   

New public trash cans will be added in Southeast, Northeast, North, Southwest, South, Downtown, and Northwest Portland through 2023. Read more

Reducing Single-Use Plastics 

In 2012, Portland prohibited retailers, grocery stores, or restaurants from providing customers with single-use plastic bags. Paper bags had to be made with at least 40% post-consumer recycled fiber. In 2019, BPS updated this policy to add 5-cent minimum charges on paper and reusable plastic bags, to comply with the State of Oregon Single-Use Bag Ban. Read more

In 2019, Portland prohibited businesses from automatically including plastic straws, stirrers, utensils, or individually packaged condiments in customers’ orders for dine-in, drive-through, take-out, or delivery. These items are only to be provided upon customer request. Read more

These two policies build on Portland’s polystyrene foam ban, passed in 1992, which prohibits restaurants, grocery stores, and nonprofit food servers from serving or packaging food or beverages in products made of polystyrene foam. Read more

Multifamily Recycling Improvements 

In 2015 Metro, the City of Portland, and other local cities and counties began researching how to improve multifamily garbage and recycling services. This work led to Metro’s updates to regionwide standards, which include improved garbage and recycling service levels, easy-to-understand signs, and color-coded containers. BPS, in alignment with other local jurisdictions, began implementing these changes in 2021. Read more

Mandatory compost for foodservice businesses 

Starting in 2023, the largest food service businesses in the Portland metro area will not be allowed to put large amounts of food in the garbage. When sent to a landfill, food creates methane, which has a greenhouse gas impact at least 24 times that of carbon dioxide. Leading up to that date, BPS will help businesses set up compost collection. Read more

The Future of Recycling in Portland

Oregon Metro’s 2030 Regional Waste Plan, adopted in 2019, provides a blueprint for the way the Portland region manages the garbage and recycling system through 2030, including how products are made and how to shape jobs in the waste industry. Read more.

The Oregon Recycling Modernization Act, which became effective January 1, 2022, is a significant overhaul of state policy that will modernize Oregon's recycling system. This system-wide update will make recycling easier for the public to use, expand access to recycling services, upgrade the facilities that sort recyclables, and create environmental benefits while reducing social and environmental harms, such as plastic pollution. Producers and manufacturers of packaging, paper products, and food service ware will pay for many of these necessary improvements and help ensure recycling is successful in Oregon. Recycling program changes will start in July 2025. Read more