PORTLAND — On a rainy Sunday morning, hundreds of people lined up at the Mittleman Jewish Community Center in the Hillsdale area of Portland. Some arrived as early 90 minutes ahead of the big event. They came loaded down with bags, wagons and carts full of items that aren’t allowed in normal curbside recycling bins — things like plastic clamshells used for take-out, coffee cup lids, pill bottles and straws.
“We are at the James Neighborhood Recycling event. It’s very exciting to be here and exciting he does this,” said one woman who lined up early.
“I love it. I’d be putting all this stuff in the trash and I really don’t want to do that,” said another woman.
As a DJ played rock music in the background, they waited to have their bags counted. They came to help save the Earth. They came to see and support the man who has become the region’s recycling rock star, 24-year-old James Harris.
“It’s so amazing what this young man has done to make this a huge success,” said Michelle Bombet Minch, who helped coordinate the event at the Jewish Community Center.
James, his mom and an army of volunteers set up tents, tables and collection bins, ready to accept hard-to-recycle plastics.
At just $3 a bag, it’s an affordable option for people to make sure their recyclables don’t end up in a landfill — and helps James earn a living.
“I like collecting stuff by people dropping off things they’d throw away. I’m saving the planet and earning money,” James said.
James has come a long way since his childhood, when his mother said he would run away from people, had behavior issues and had a hard time communicating. At 4 years old, James was diagnosed with autism. His mother, Kathi Goldman, worried about what kind of future he’d have. How would he fit into the world and how he would support himself.
“When he was little, it was hard. I never envisioned where he is now that he could even be able to do what he does now,” she said.
James was always fascinated with garbage and recycling, his mom said. She had the idea of starting a neighborhood recycling business. That was when James was 18. They started with a handful of neighbors in Portland’s Bridlemile neighborhood picking up plastics that aren’t accepted curbside.
“In the beginning, I didn’t know anything about recycling, but now I’m excited. I see how much we bring in and we are doing our part. It’s a little part, but we are doing our part,” Kathi said.
Doing their part has grown from a few neighbors to 400 customers.
“I knew it was going to get big. I didn’t know it was going to get this big,” James said.
The company recently achieved nonprofit status, and is currently looking for a small space in southwest Portland to turn into a recycling depot.
James Neighborhood Recycling now includes a much bigger neighborhood. Instead of collecting the recyclables in Kathi’s SUV, they’ve expanded to a large cargo van. And it’s not just daily customers anymore, but recyclers all over the region who flock to his mega-recycling events. Regulars include people like Aaron Ward, who owns Old School Craft Services, which provides catering services for the film and television industry – shows like Grimm and Portlandia.
“We’ve been trying to find a way to deal with all the waste we bring to film sets all over town. James has been a lifesaver for businesses and the community,” Ward said.
Ward brought mostly number 5 and 6 plastics to the James Recycling event. Number 5 is polypropylene used in yogurt cups, hummus tubs and single-use cutlery. Number 6 is polystyrene, rigid plastic, including Styrofoam, some meat trays, egg cartons and aspirin bottles. He had 18 bags full. For $54, it will all be recycled.
“I wish they’d have more of these events. Then, I wouldn’t have to keep all this stuff at my house,” Ward said.
When people ask if all the plastic really gets recycled, Kathi and James assure them it does. They’ve partnered with Denton Plastics, an industrial plastic recycler. After the recycling event, James and his mom haul the recyclable items to their garage, where a shredder grinds it into millions of multi-colored shards of plastic.
“It looks like sand,” James said after shredding a big batch of plastic.
They take the shredded plastic to Denton Plastics where they make it into pellets.
“Absolutely, it gets recycled,” said Denton Plastics President Nicole Janssen.
Those pellets are sold to different molding companies to make toys, nursery pots, and construction materials like conduit pipe. Janssen said Oregon passed legislation to modernize recycling and includes funding for more events like the ones held by James Neighborhood Recycling.
“I think James is going to be a leader in teaching other communities to do this. You can move great things when you start a little thing like this. Nobody ever thought it would become this big and I think it’s just going to continue to grow,” Janssen said.