Works and Days

Metro Hazardous Waste: Nate Martin, Winter Shadow 2016

Metro is a large municipal agency based in the Portland area, though its influence is defined by a boundary that encompasses multiple cities in several counties. This January, I had the opportunity to spend two information-filled days meeting with and shadowing multiple Reedies who work at Metro.

The first day began at the regional center in Portland where I met my host, Jim. From there we got into a Metro-owned car and drove down to Swan Island to visit the MetroPaint facility. Metro runs a fantastic program there; there's nothing else like it in the country. Jim gave me a thorough tour of the facility, the most exciting part being the processing room. This is a sealed-off room where a small crew (four or five people in jumpsuits and rubber boots) receives and sorts containers of paint that have been collected from throughout the Metro region. The crew quickly opens the containers and inspects them for quality. If they're bad they get dumped into a drain leading to a large plastic tank. If they're good, they get mixed and dumped into one of about a dozen different stations, sorted by approximate color, that drain down to separate collection tanks. It's a messy assembly-line process, and fascinating to watch. The collected paint is further homogenized and adjusted to create standard colors that Metro sells commercially. All of this work, including the packaging, happens in the same facility. I had no idea of the extent or precision of this program before I visited Metro, and I was very impressed by the program’s ability to turn waste back into product.paint

We left the MetroPaint facility after lunch and drove across the river to visit one of the two Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) collection centers that Metro operates (and that Jim manages). The operation there is efficient and impressive. Customers drive up with a load of waste that can include batteries, CFL bulbs, paint, pesticides, containers of mystery liquids, all kinds of things. A crew there does all the unloading while the driver stays in the vehicle. They quickly load everything onto small roll carts, triaging and sorting as they go. When the driver leaves they pay five bucks for dropping off up to thirty-five pounds of waste.

I sometimes wonder what happens to things that I send off to be recycled. There’s a large amount of faith in the act of recycling, and the rules are different in nearly every city that has a recycling program in the US. The situation is a little different at the HHW station, since people have to go to the effort of driving their own waste out there, but my experience still put fact to faith. I got to see the bins of sorted batteries, and find out which ones go where, and how they’re recycled. Fluorescent bulbs also had multiple bins for the different sizes, and really are recycled. It’s nice knowing that there’s a good place to take those mercury-laden hoards of spent batteries and bulbs that many of my friends have.

I spent my second day with Metro at the Regional Center where I had a packed day of informational meetings with Reedies. My day was filled with recycling programs, pesticide control, web-development in Drupal, human resources, and transportation planning. My favorite part of the second day was getting to tag along to a planning meeting. The meeting was about a change in planning phase for a rapid transit corridor in the Metro area. The discussion was mostly about which development plans were currently useful to look at, and resulted in the group agreeing to move ahead with the smaller, more specific plan.


I’m fascinated by transportation infrastructure, as I believe it’s important to design dense, livable cities that favor public transit, walkability, and bicycle transit. Sitting in on this meeting put faces and personalities on some of the infrastructure that I use every day to get around the city.

My main goal at the beginning of this shadow was to get as broad a picture of Metro as I could, so that I could see where and how people fit into the organization, and specifically, to see where people with skill sets similar to mine fit in. I got that, and as a bonus learned that it’s okay to throw alkaline batteries in the trash (but keep all your other batteries to take down to the transfer station if you live in Portland!)

Tags: winter shadow, winter externship, waste, city, recycling, environment, urban, infrastructure