BPS’s long-time leader of Master Recycler program says goodbye

News Article
Lauren standing on right next to panel of 5 people wearing business clothes and seated in chairs
Lauren Norris leaves as the robust program moves to Metro; continues her legacy of outreach, education and inclusion.

How Lauren became the Master Recycler program manager

Lauren Norris came to the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability through downspouts. Hired in 1996 as a community engagement coordinator for the Bureau of Environmental Services, she led the outreach efforts for the bureau’s new Downspout Disconnection Program (DDP).

Cities all over the country were expected to stop sewers from overflowing by removing stormwater from our antiquated systems. Most cities were hiring engineers and contractors to build pipes and pumps to solve the problem. Portland did that, too, but the City also paid local residents to disconnect their downspouts.

While at BES, Lauren worked with community organizations that might not traditionally participate in an environmental project, paying groups to mobilize volunteers to disconnect the downspouts for homeowners who couldn’t do it themselves. Organizations earned money for their church choir robes, youth leadership trainings, Black women college scholarships, and neighborhood clean ups. 

“We did a massive call to action and were able to remove almost 60% of the stormwater that hits residential roofs in the city,” recalls Lauren. “I loved this project because it challenged traditional thinking about what public involvement is and demonstrated that authentic community engagement was possible – even with a huge infrastructure project.”

Lauren holding phone wearing sunglasses in foreground, in background are green dense shrubs and Mayan temples
Lauren answers questions in her interview for the Master Recycler job from atop Temple IV in Tikal.

When the Lauren saw the Office of Sustainable Development (OSD) had an opening for a Master Recycler program manager, she was ready for a new opportunity .

Timing for the job interviews was tricky, though. Back then, she volunteered for a month every year in Guatemala, and the final interviews occurred while she was in a remote area without a signal. But the locals told her she could get a connection on the top of Temple IV in Tikal. So that’s where she called from.  

A few weeks later, Lauren joined the OSD crew and quickly learned that “reduce, reuse, recycle” can actually move the needle on consumption of materials and climate change.

“I learned that materials make up as much as half the carbon emissions in our region,” she recalled. So it felt important to shift the Master Recycler handbook, class training, and projects in a holistic way, considering environmental and social well-being across the full life cycle of materials.

What is a master recycler?

The Master Recycler program is a community engagement and volunteer development program focused on sustainable consumption, climate protection, environmental justice, food waste reduction, toxics reduction, composting and recycling. Its purpose is to create a pool of knowledgeable community members who do outreach and inspire others in their community to consume sustainably. The program has a strong focus on working with BIPOC-led community partners.

Master recyclers help neighbors, friends, family and co-workers by giving them information and connecting them to resources. Together, master recyclers contribute about 3,500 volunteer hours a year, focusing on recycling; composting; repair, repurpose, swapping, sharing, and reuse; food waste prevention; green building; and toxics reduction.

They also advocate to the State, Metro and local jurisdictions to find safe and just ways to protect our climate, reduce consumption, and conserve our natural resources.

Community organizations can request help from a Master Recycler by completing the volunteer request form.

A native Portlander

Lauren grew up in Portland, stayed for college at University of Oregon and went to grad school at Lewis and Clark. In 1993, she joined an old family friend (a Methodist minister) for projects in Guatemala. Together they started bringing teams there to help build a community center, medical clinic and school. Eventually, she spent more time in the community and less with the teams, mostly helping in the medical clinic they built together, but also working with an amazing community organizer from El Salvador named Jaime.

Lauren stands between two women all holding flowers and the Master Recycler binder
Lauren with Eva Aguilar from Washington County and Mariana Valenzuela from Centro Cultural on graduation night of the first Spanish-language course.

Jaime engaged inner city youth in the capitol with his street performance skills. He and Lauren started working with a teacher in the country to have intercultural exchanges between kids from the city and Mayan kids from the country.

“That’s when I first started learning about the Latin American concept of Popular Education,” recalls Lauren. “It was amazing to see children learn and teach one another about different world views.”

Popular Education is a way of acknowledging lived experience, while expanding people’s influence in their world by giving them information and resources. Lauren integrated Popular Education-style workshops in the Master Recycler training, so participants could share their wealth of experience and knowledge with the whole group. Her knowledge of the technique deepened as she worked with Romeo Sosa, who was the executive director of Voz in Portland, where she ended up serving on the board for 13 years.

Reducing consumption equitably

Lauren believes that as we reduce the pollution caused by extraction, we can create safe, living-wage jobs in recycling and reuse. As we reduce deforestation, we can increase access for recreation in our natural areas. As we redefine what it means to live a good and rich life, we can ensure that people who have had the least access to the American Dream will get to enjoy health and happiness.

Lauren on left and Abigail on right wearing a graduation cap, they are shaking hands and holding a card in the center
Lauren congratulates Abigail Lawrence on graduation day from the North by Northeast Community Health Center Master Recycler class.

She considers it an honor to have worked with community organizations to design and conduct Community-designed Master Recycler classes. Partners such as Centro Cultural in Cornelius; the Black-centered North by Northeast Community Health Center; Trash for Peace, which serves the Home Forward communities; and Red Lodge, a native-led transitions services program for women released from Coffee Creek, have had hundreds of people take the course and co-created projects relevant to their own communities. Metro, Washington and Clackamas counties, and the City of Portland have contributed resources to these projects and paid the participants, providing opportunities to build wealth in their own communities.

“As we change how we produce and consume in our city and state,” says Lauren, “we can ensure it’s done collaboratively so that communities of color and low-income communities are co-creators. We can also create equitable avenues for wealth building.”

As Lauren leaves the City of Portland and BPS after 26 years, the Master Recycler Program will move to Metro. And she is excited for the transition.

“I think it will remain connected to the grassroots partners and volunteers – but be better sourced and able to support the region’s equity goals in the solid waste plan.”

What’s next?

Lauren doesn’t have big plans. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” she says. “I’m going to hike with my dog, paint my house, putter in the garden and spend a day a week with my two-year-old niece. I would love to get back to Salsa dancing, but COVID makes that impossible for a while. I’m sure something will call me in to the next thing.”

Learn more about the Master Recycler program 

Profile by Eden Dabbs, Senior Communications Strategist, Bureau of Planning and Sustainability


Eden Dabbs

City of Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability