Zero Waste, Scaled Up: A “Little City” Sized Approach to Waste Reduction at the Port of Portland

Port of Portland Land Quality Manager Stan Jones with the Waste Minimization Team (from right): Grace Stainback, Erin Anderson, Stan Jones, Andrew Hickey, Toby Kubler, Kaileigh Westermann, and Jeffrey Waldo.

By Grace Stainback

Working at the Port of Portland, with its Five Years to Zero Waste Plan, fits right in with my upbringing. I have my mother to thank for my zero waste ethic: she always rinsed and repacked the little Ziploc bags that held my peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, took 2-minute showers, and brought her own cloth bags to the grocery store. As an adult, I am known in my own house by the  hoarded plastic film, and for always raiding the refrigerator to scrape together meals with dying leftovers, or as the person who can’t quite let go of things (“A ripped set of sheets? That three-legged chair? There has to be something we can do with that”).

But what do you do with 32 restaurant kitchens’ leftovers, or 80 three-legged chairs? These are the bigger questions that I tackle at my job, where zero waste goals are applied on a massive scale. I secured a position as the Outreach Coordinator of the Waste Minimization Team at the Port, which operates like a small city and has one of the most impressive waste diversion programs in the country.

The Waste Minimization program, part of the Port of Portland’s robust environmental management system, tackles diversion goals for all Port facilities through data analysis, outreach & education, and creative programming. Our main focus is the Port’s primary waste generator – Portland International Airport. With 10,000 employees and an average of almost 40,000 travelers passing through each day, PDX is its own metropolis… which means it generates a small city-size volume of waste. Luckily, a lot more can be diverted when it is coordinated communally. I’ll walk you through two examples of our team’s programming at the Port, followed by some practical tips for maximizing your own scaled-up impact.

Fall & Spring Cleanups — Not Your Average Neighborhood Garage Sale

Since 2004, our team has invited any and all airport tenants and facilities to get rid of bulky, broken, or unwanted items on one designated day twice a year. The goal is to cycle as many items as possible into reuse, and dismantle the items that cannot be reused into their recyclable pieces. And you’d be surprised by what can amass at an airport complex in the course of a few months. What do you do with the mountain of broken suitcases that the janitorial staff has been grudgingly stockpiling? We’ll break them down. What about that old refrigerator taking up space in your storage room? We’ll find a home for it. Do you have outdated office electronics, or piles of scrap metal? We have every kind of special waste hauler and reuse organization in Portland coming in that day for pickups.


Got metal? A snapshot of materials after they’ve been broken down into recyclable parts at a Port Cleanup event.

During our last Fall 2015 event, 8.9 tons of material was collected! 76% (6.8 tons) of total materials were diverted from the landfill, 25% (1.7 tons) of which was diverted through reuse. But, without the coordination of one centrally-located event for all Port tenants to easily dispose of items, most of them would have likely ended up in a landfill. This is a model that could be applied to other airports, malls, office complexes, business districts and neighborhoods.

PDX Food Donation Program — Not Your Typical Canned Goods Drive

The Waste Minimization team started collecting food scraps at PDX as far back as 2003. In 2013, the team went a step further and launched the food donation program, after waste sorts at the airport terminal revealed high volumes of still-edible food in the compost bins. Think about any typical airport, teeming with grab n’ go shelves of fresh yogurt parfaits, egg sammies or deli salads; now think about all of that food winding up in the compost- or worse, the landfill-  if not sold in time to meet controversially high market standards. Our team works with a Portland-based organization, Urban Gleaners, who picks up food three times a week from PDX and distributes it to local food kitchens and low-income school districts.


A system that works: The central location for storing food makes food donation easy for Portland airport terminal restaurants.

If any single airport restaurant was tasked with driving out to a food kitchen with a handful of day-old packaged tuna sandwiches, it could hardly be considered efficient, and it would never happen. But by operating as an economy of scale we can coordinate the airport terminal restaurants within one program, with amazing results. In the three short years since its inception, the program has cycled nearly 100 tons of food back into the community (that’s almost 13,000 meals).

Working in our little city, the Port Waste Minimization Team has a unique opportunity to make a big impact. But this model can be replicated in any large commercial center, or another airport, or even your own apartment complex. A few tips for maximizing scaled-up waste minimization:

  • Get a good team together. Our team has a diversity of interests, from data analysis to materials management to food systems, but we all unite under a common commitment to reducing waste at the Port.
  • Draw conclusions. Through observation, outreach, data collection and analysis, we are able to identify the biggest waste problems, and focus our efforts on solving those first. Where along the chain is your waste being generated? Is it food, glass, or electronic waste? Make informed decisions to make the biggest impact.
  • Expand your network. We build relationships with the people that help us get things done: restaurant owners, Port concessions managers, regional waste haulers and recyclers, Port maintenance and custodial staff, and so on. Knowing the ropes helps us understand how we can be an asset to other inhabitants of our little city, and what goes around comes back around to us.
  • Give rewards. Our team is notorious for throwing pizza parties or giving out gift cards at every opportunity. We have an annual incentives program for composting, reward management staff for bringing durable mugs to meetings, and so on. Make as many people as possible feel good about what they’re doing to help your efforts, even if it’s a small gesture. They will remember it.
  • Make it consistent. Our cleanups happen twice a year at the same time. Our rewards program takes place during the same three months of every year. Keeping efforts consistent will increase awareness and commitment among the larger community.
  • Have FUN. We try to keep all of our initiatives as fun and positive as we can. I know, this is a tough one when dealing with trash, but the difference the program has made is remarkable. You will be surprised at how little changes done consistently can reduce waste.


We may look harmless, but we come with sledgehammers: This team broke down 8.9 tons of materials to divert it from the landfill at the Fall 2015 Port Cleanup event.

Blog post originally published at

Follow this link to learn more about the Port of Portland’s sustainability programs.