The challenges of recycling at apartments
If you live in an apartment in the Portland area, it's probably harder to recycle than if you lived in a single-family home.
And your access to recycling could vary significantly from a tenant in an apartment down the street.
These are some of the findings from a recent Metro report on the state of recycling in apartment and condominium buildings in Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties.
Researchers found that 8 percent of multifamily buildings in the tri-county area don't offer mixed recycling service, and 28 percent lack recycling service for glass. Many apartment buildings have inadequate bin space available for garbage and recycling, leading to overflows.
The research, conducted over the past year at a cost of $105,000, will help Metro and local cities begin a regional effort to improve access to recycling for everyone who lives in the region, and increase the recycling rate for those who live in apartments.
Research included a sampling of what services are being provided building to building, data on what's actually going into the garbage and recycling bins, and interviews with residents.
"It's exciting to have some regionally specific data to use to make improvements," says Sara Kirby, Metro solid waste planner. "We've never had the whole picture."
In Multnomah County, 40 percent of the housing is multifamily, more than in suburban areas. However, in coming years, a greater share of new housing in many parts of the region is projected to come from multifamily units.
Providing consistent services from one apartment to another is a challenge because of the variation in building types and layouts, Kirby says. And there are no standards across the region regarding how much recycling service landlords should provide, such as the size and number of bins.
"In some parts of the region, you could move across the street and have different-colored bins," Kirby says. Some recycling bins hold multiple generations of signs and stickers, including outdated ones that are 30 years old.
That can be confusing for newcomers to the region, who often first land in an apartment, Kirby says.
Add to this the high tenant turnover rate in apartments, and recycling can be pretty confusing. Property managers also turn over frequently, making it challenging to ensure they are providing accurate information to their tenants.
The research project found these conditions are leading to a lower quality of recyclables. If improper materials are put in recycling bins, that "contaminates" the stream of materials, complicating efforts to reuse and sell them.
Researchers found that 21 percent of the stuff put into multifamily recycling bins didn't belong there. Those could be items that were garbage or items that are only recyclable at a local facility, but not through curbside programs.
On the flip side, 15 percent of what was tossed in multifamily garbage bins could have been put instead into recycling bins.
Metro determined that multifamily residents toss about the same share of recyclable items into the garbage as their peers in single-family homes. However, apartment tenants tossed more than twice the level of contaminants into the recycling.
Kirby says this isn't necessarily a function of behavior. "Compared to recycling services for single family homes," she says, "the service for multifamily homes is less consistent, less convenient and much more confusing to use."
Improper disposal of bulky items like furniture and appliances came up so many times in the study that findings were included in the report. "We need to make this a priority," Kirby says.
When people move, they sometimes don't have a truck, time or money to haul these bulky items, and leave them behind. That can block recycling bins and cause a variety of hazards.
Metro and local governments will now work together on tangible improvements. The city of Portland, among other municipalities, plans to use the findings to step up recycling in its jurisdiction.
"We're going to start our work with properties that currently have no recycling services," Kirby says.
Metro will spend the next 18 months developing the next Regional Waste Plan, a blueprint that guides the regional government's management of the garbage and recycling system.
Bylined articles by Metro writers do not necessarily represent the opinions of Metro or the Metro Council. This story was edited from its original version published at oregonmetro.gov/news.