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By Janie Har October 1, 2011

Should Mary Nolan get credit for curbside recycling in Portland?

Before Mary Nolan was a state legislator running for Portland City Council, she worked many years for the city of Portland. While there, she was in charge of two departments: sewers and public works maintenance.

Nolan is not shy about bringing up the municipal part of her resume. The following is listed on her campaign website and on her Facebook campaign page:

"As the head of the Bureau of Environmental Services and earlier as Director of Public Works Maintenance, she helped lead landmark improvements in protecting the Willamette River and environment, launching curbside recycling, repairing Portland roads and bridges, and managing public resources to save millions of dollars while bringing projects in on-time and on-budget."

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That’s a lot of landmark public deeds to absorb. So we’ll focus on just one of her cited accomplishments: Did Nolan help lead the launch of curbside recycling?

Portland residents started recycling from their homes in the late 1980s, back before Nolan entered the recycling scene. In 1983, the state mandated that cities offer the service to residential customers. Portland adopted a system effective June 1, 1987. But it was a free-market system with multiple haulers servicing the same blocks and recycling results were scattered. The companies picked up newspapers weekly and metal, glass and cardboard monthly.

In short, the initial system wasn’t very effective. In February 1992, the city rolled out a new residential recycling program. Households received two bins for recyclables. Milk jugs and magazines were added to mix. But here’s the critical difference: Haulers were allocated their own section of the city, and they were required to collect recycling every week, the same day as trash collection.

"The overhaul that was instituted in 1992, it was game changing. It was a fundamental shift," says Bruce Walker, the city’s solid waste and recycling manager who was back then part of a small team charged with making the change happen.

His boss at the Bureau of Environmental Services, which managed recycling at the time, was Sue Keil. Keil said she had been tapped by then-Commissioner Earl Blumenauer to oversee the new recycling system. Nolan, tapped to lead the bureau in mid-1990, was Keil’s boss.

"Certainly Mary was not, as you say, involved in the day-to-day decision making, but I was talking to her about it, and it was on her watch," Keil said. "It’s entirely fair to say this happened on her watch and with her support." 

In a similar PolitiFact, we gave Portland mayoral candidate Charlie Hales a True for saying that he led on the issue of racially diversifying the Fire Bureau in the early 1990s. As the elected commissioner in charge of the bureau, Hales hired a new fire chief to come to Portland and shake up the bureau. We found that Hales was correct to claim credit.

Nolan, on the other hand, was not a commissioner in charge. She was a bureau director carrying out the order of a commissioner and city council. And on the flip side, Nolan wasn’t even the person directly responsible for revamping the recycling system. That person was Sue Keil.

It’s hard for us to let Nolan take credit when she was neither an elected official or civic body giving the order, nor the person handling day-to-day duties.

Let’s also remember that Portland had a curbside recycling system before Nolan. We know it was clumsy and disorganized and hardly resembled what we have today, but the word "launch" makes it sound as if she initiated curbside recycling.

Nolan says she "helped lead landmark improvements in … launching curbside recycling." We find this statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details. We rate the statement Half True.

Our Sources

Interview with Mary Nolan, Sept. 21, 2011
Interview with Sue Keil, Sept. 22, 2011
Interview with Bruce Walker, Sept. 22, 2011
City of Portland, Office of Sustainable Development, "Beyond 60 percent: Program Strategies for Achieving the 2005 Solid Waste Recycling Goal,"March 13, 2002
City of Portland, Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, "History of Portland's Solid Waste and Recycling System."
Oregon DEQ, "Fact Sheet: Oregon Recycling Laws"
The Oregonian, "Councilor wants simpler recycling," April 10, 1990
The Oregonian, "City Council OKs plan to improve curbside recycling," April 12, 1990
The Oregonian, "Portland plans switch to regulated garbage service in November," July 15, 1991
The Oregonian, "Garbage haulers applaud city’s new system," Oct. 3, 1991
The Oregonian, "Garbage hauling gets an overhaul," Jan. 30, 1992
The Oregonian, "Mary Nolan, environmental bureau head, resigns," July 3, 1993

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Should Mary Nolan get credit for curbside recycling in Portland?

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