August 22, 2012  9:15 AM

Opt In panelists offer surprising responses in trash survey

GarbageA study of the region's trash system is still in its formative stages, but panelists in a recent Opt In survey had some clear messages for Metro's solid waste planners.

Panelists in the July survey said protecting health and the environment were the most important factors in planning how to manage the region's trash; they clearly said they didn't want garbage anywhere near them.

The survey was also notable for panelists' answers to a question that wasn't explicitly asked – how they feel about Portland's year-old garbage pickup schedule. Hundreds of respondents called for that city to return to weekly pickup of garbage.

The compost switch

Metro does not regulate individual cities' garbage pickup schedules. The calls for weekly pickup came in open-ended answers on the survey; neither Metro nor DHM Research, the public opinion research firm that coordinates Opt In, tracked specifically how many open-ended responses called for weekly pickup to return.

Metro News estimates two-thirds of the 433 Multnomah County panelists who answered open-ended questions called for weekly pickup to return.

The region's trash, recycling and composting system is overseen by Metro's Parks and Environmental Services Department. Its director, Paul Slyman, said that while Portland's trash pickup schedule isn't in his department's purview, Metro can't ignore the feedback it receives. Slyman attended two focus groups about solid waste before the survey was conducted.

"What we heard in both the focus groups as well as the Opt In survey is people are frustrated with the new systems," Slyman said.

How frustrated?

"I don't like the change to garbage pick up to every other week," said one Multnomah County woman. "My household doesn't generate very much garbage and we already composted, but we have a dog – just one, only 40 pounds, but still having dog poop in my can for 2 weeks is yucky, especially in the summer."

Dogs and diapers were a recurring theme in the survey's open-ended answers. Calls for a return to weekly pickup crossed party and demographic lines.

The pushback in Portland could serve as a warning for Metro as it moves forward in its Solid Waste Roadmap study, analyzing how the waste stream could be managed before the expiration of trash management contracts in 2020. But Slyman pointed to a key difference in the efforts: The solid waste work is aimed at what happens to garbage after consumers push their trash bins to the curb; composting hits people in their kitchen.

To bury or to burn

One of Slyman's main takeaways from the survey, and from focus groups, was that the region's residents seem relatively comfortable with the concept of using waste to make electricity.

The survey's 3,526 respondents were asked to rate how they felt about three options for managing the region's trash: Keeping things the same, prioritizing waste-to-energy or using small-scale, local facilities to dispose of trash.

On a scale of 1 to 3, with 1 being most preferable, respondents gave burning garbage for energy a 1.7 rating. Small-scale facilities got a 2.1 rating, and keeping things the same scored 2.2.

Slyman said he was amazed by how supportive people were of "doing something with our garbage other than putting it in a very sophisticated hole in the ground." That came from the focus group participants, as well.

"They were surprised to learn that we weren't," he said. "People that have moved from other parts of the country, people who have lived overseas know that garbage is used to generate energy in those places and so the three out of four people that felt the advantages outweigh the disadvantages of recovering energy was very surprising to us, and it told us we need to think about that fourth 'R.'"

The fourth 'R' Slyman refers to is recovery – after reducing, reusing and recycling. He isn't pulling that out of thin air: Oregon law dictates that waste planners are supposed to try to cleanly and safely extract energy from trash before they send it off to a landfill.

The best-known waste-to-energy facility nearby is in Brooks, just off Interstate 5 near Salem, where 550 tons of garbage daily are turned into 13 megawatts of electricity annually – enough juice to power the city of Woodburn.

"It makes practical sense to increase energy production and at the same time reduce landfill use," said a Republican Opt In survey participant from Clackamas County. "Yes, it will be costly, but all new procedures have initial costs."

"Ninety percent less garbage to bury is awesome," wrote one Multnomah County woman who identified as a Democrat.

Not in my backyard

If the panelists and focus group members said they weren't fond of trucking trash 150 miles each way to Arlington, they were just as clear that they didn't want their trash handled anywhere near their homes.

Panelists were asked to rate eight values for Metro to consider as it moves forward with the trash study. Disposing garbage close to where it's generated ranked dead last, averaging a 6 on a scale of 1-8. Shortly ahead of that was creating local jobs, scoring a 5.8.

By comparison, "protect people's health" scored a 2.8 and "protecting the environment" rated 3.0.  Waste-to-energy scored 4.0.

"That was very true in the focus groups, too," Slyman said. "People said 'I think we should manage this locally. But I live in West Linn – put it in Hillsboro.' And the reverse was true – if I live in Hillsboro, and I think it should be managed locally but not here, put it in West Linn."

Even if landfills remain a key part of the trash system after 2020, the Columbia Ridge landfill near Arlington may not be the default answer. Several landfills have opened or are in the planning phases south of Interstate 84 between The Dalles and Arlington, offering an alternative to the 300-mile roundtrip to bury the trash.

Panel overwhelmingly white, educated

While Metro officials say the Opt In survey provides significantly more feedback than they would otherwise receive through open houses or public testimony, it also continues to struggle to match the region's diversity.

Only five percent of the panelists identified as ethnic minorities; about 22 percent of the Portland region's residents are people of color. Seventy-eight percent of the survey's respondents had graduated college, more than double the population of college graduates in the region. Fifty-seven percent of respondents identified as Democrats, who account for about 42 percent of the region's registered voters.

Metro communications director Jim Middaugh said Metro is still hearing from more minorities through Opt In than it would through traditional outreach.

"We're not where we need to be or we want to be," Middaugh said. "It's less important how the overall population of the panel compares (to the region) than it is that we're hearing from more of all the different groups of people in our region. We'll continue to work to encourage a more diverse set of people to join the panel and take the surveys."

Metro News editor Nick Christensen can be reached at nick.christensen@oregonmetro.gov or 503-813-7583. Follow Metro on Twitter @oregonmetro. 

See also:

Don't ignore the dirty MURFs as solid waste project moves forward (May 4, 2012)
No clear paths on Metro's solid waste roadmap (Jan. 12, 2011) 

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