A Washington County resident has worked his way through the ranks in county government, to the position of manager of Washington County Solid Waste & Recycling.
Tom Egleston, a veteran county employee who lives in Tigard, heads up a department that regulates garbage and recycling in a 700-square-mile radius of unincorporated Washington County.
"I am excited about the opportunity to work with the community and our Board of Commissioners to ensure that our garbage and recycling system is meeting our communities expectations and needs," said Egleston, who was officially named to the job late last month after serving as interim manager since December 2019. "Garbage and recycling is a local issue and is managed at the local level."
Egleston holds a master's degree in public administration from Portland State University and a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Oregon. He has spent the past decade working in various roles with Washington County Solid Waste & Recycling.
While Metro takes much of the lead in most of the student-led education, Egleston helped oversee the county's green business advisor program, which works to improve sustainability practices involving waste.
"We also regulate solid waste collection in unincorporated Washington County so we have about 63,000 households that take garbage service. Our program sets the rates and the service standards and manages the solid waste collection franchise system," said Egleston, who has lived near Bull Mountain since 2012.
There are nine garbage haulers in the county system, including Waste Management, Pride Disposal and Republic Services.
But it's not all week-to-week operations. Metro, the regional government that oversees garbage and recycling rules, has established a wide-ranging 2030 plan for the region's waste. The regional government is also looking at building a solid waste transfer station in Cornelius to better serve the Westside.
"It's an ambitious plan that centers equity and correcting historical wrongs in the solid waste system, and that can be anywhere from facility siting (and) placement to how customers interact with their haulers," said Egleston of the Metro initiative. "We're really excited, kind of digging into it and really trying to get to the heart of some of the issues we have in our community and our system. It's kind of an odd paradigm to look at garbage and think about equity. But it's there."
One of the big challenges at the moment is making things more equitable for those who live in apartment complexes, where there has traditionally been a lower level of service. Garbage from apartments often makes its way into recycling bins, and vice versa, he said.
Egleston said the goal is to divert as much waste away from landfills as possible.
"It's really confusing in the apartment communities. Sometimes we have four containers that are all the same color, and there's an enclosure — you can't tell what it is. They're all mixed up," he explained.
Egleston said Metro is taking the lead on how to handle those situations. The regional government could have rules in place by early 2021 that may include color-coded containers and signs in more languages at multi-family housing complexes.
At the same time, Egleston said there are also legislative efforts afoot that would force producers of certain products that end up in the solid waste system to bear more costs and make them more accountable for where their products eventually end up.
Part of the current problem for recycling is that China decided in 2017 that it didn't want to take as much of the United States' recyclable items, which put a global strain on the recycling industry that everyone is still reacting to, Egleston pointed out. Still, Washington County is finding new markets.
"Very little is ending up in the garbage, and if it is, it's mostly contaminated," he said. "There's some plastic markets in Canada that have opened up."
Other materials are headed to countries in Southeast Asia, which may or may not be a good thing depending on how good their environmental regulations are, Egleston said, noting that the goal of Washington County Solid Waste & Recycling is to send off recyclables to a responsible market and not just get rid of them.
The county also helps oversee enforcing Metro's administrative rule requiring businesses that produce large amounts of food scraps to keep that waste out of landfills.
Egleston said while Washington County is helping to make sure that happens, several programs have been delayed because of COVID-19.
The ultimate goal would be to turn all those scraps into a slurry that could be taken to a wastewater facility to be turned into energy, he said.
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