Portland's Trash Recyclers Creating Green Jobs

Posted on: Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Living in a big American city such as Portland is a good deal for many of us. We have steady jobs providing solid incomes to enjoy the many surrounding entertainment, sports, and cultural opportunities. Technological revolutions in electronics provide us fast desktop computers, exotic packaged foods, and stylish clothes. 

But cities also have a yin and yang, or complimentary opposites.

As we all know, Portland has a large homeless population with many having tenuous social ties to other residents. In addition, the successes of material life has created a huge amount of physical residue that is commonly known as trash. All those obsolete televisions, clothes from last season, and pizza boxes need a place to go as their value to most of us ends.

Pearl Rotarians learned on Nov. 12 about Trash for Peace, one interesting effort to surmount selected problems of urban living. The speakers were Laura Kutner Tokarski, Founder and Director, and Barbra (Barbie) Weber, Coordinator of Ground Score, a program that is affiliated with Trash for Peace. The basic plan of Trash for Peace is two-fold, (1) develop an effective recycling program for normally unwanted trash and (2) develop a core group of normally homeless workers who will collect the trash and make sure that it gets used in acceptable ways. Since the program only became active in the past few months, it may be too early to evaluate its success. The program is currently supported by a small grant from Metro.

Laura’s specialty is getting rid of trash or, better yet, finding socially valuable uses for it. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Guatemala, she helped create needed school classrooms by using plastic bottles and trash. Soon the streets of her community were much cleaner as the residents worked together to stuff more than 6,000 bottles full of trash to build the walls of their new classrooms. Community donations helped finance the rest of the cement, doors, and windows that were necessary. 

Laura emphasized to Rotarians that Trash for Peace is NOT just interested in sponsoring landfills. Rather, as the Guatemalan situation, it wants to find socially valuable uses for all the junk.  

Barbie’s special interest is organizing work communities that have extensive networks of social ties. She told the Rotarians that the homeless are often similar in personality and needs to the rest of the population, but are frequently the victims of negative events that could happen to any of us. Barbie says many of the homeless are “people who fell.”  As Barbie described her ideal workers, “We want people who get jobs but do not normally get jobs.” 

She noted that having networks of workers is quite valuable for the workers themselves. “Kindness comes from people around you,” Barbie noted.

Barbie says that Trash for Peace currently has about 50 paid workers in different spatial locations, but the associated social community may number about 200 persons. The group has a particular interest in hiring young adults.

Documents from the organization indicate, not surprisingly, its involvement in recycling cans and bottles. A slide (“What we do”) reported that “Past jobs include: cleaning up the beach along the Willamette River, sorting and disposing of waste at events (such as street fairs), clean-up events throughout the city.” 

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