BY JONATHAN FROCHTZWAJG
For Far West Fibers, one of Oregon's largest and oldest mixed-recycling companies, garbage alchemy has long been big business.
BY JONATHAN FROCHTZWAJG | PHOTOS BY JASON KAPLAN
Far West Fibers
President & CEO: Keith Ristau
Number of Employees: 150-160
Factoid: Far West receives 180 pounds of dirty diapers per shift
Standing atop a multimillion-dollar sorting apparatus at his company’s cavernous Northeast Portland processing facility, Keith Ristau, president and CEO of Far West Fibers, surveys malodorous mountains of cardboard boxes and milk jugs. Over the facility’s nearly round-the-clock operating hours, some 50 employees will sort through these heaps, turning one man’s trash into another’s treasure. It’s a dirty, labor-intensive job — “you have to have a lot of what we call ‘10-finger technology,’” jokes Ristau — but when there’s profit to be made, somebody’s going to do it.
For Far West, one of Oregon’s largest and oldest mixed-recycling companies, garbage alchemy has long been big business. Founded in 1980 — before curbside recycling was introduced in Oregon — the recycler today employs more than 150 people who work in six facilities spread across the Portland area. The company handles approximately 180,000 tons of material per year, including almost three quarters of the City of Portland’s recyclables, according to Ristau. But since the recession — and especially since 2011, when the city made an unintentionally harmful change to its curbside-collection service — the company has seen revenues slip about 15%. Now, fittingly enough, this recycler must salvage a new material: itself.
In his office at the Northeast Portland sorting center, Ristau, a goateed 55-year-old, explains the twofold problem. First, commodity prices — in particular, the price of paper — have been falling. Ristau estimates that the value of mixed scrap paper, which makes up the largest share of the company’s sales, has decreased roughly 15% since 2008, as a slowing in shipping activity and the decline of print newspapers has brought down demand. The problem was compounded locally by the closures of Oregon City’s Blue Heron Paper Co. in 2009 and the Albany area’s International Paper Co. mill in 2011.
At the same time, “contamination” of the material Far West receives — that is, the commingling of trash with recyclables — has dramatically increased, bringing with it a corresponding increase in the company’s processing costs. Contamination is a longstanding, industry-wide problem, with rates more or less tracking with recycling rates since the early ‘90s. The issue is so pervasive that last year, China, which dominates the recycling market, erected a “Green Fence” — a stricter inspections regime — at its ports to prevent contaminated American recyclables from ending up in Chinese landfills.
The contamination rate in Portland, however, has risen especially precipitously as of two and a half years ago, when the city switched the frequency of garbage collection from weekly to every other week as part of its rollout of curbside composting. Having their trash picked up less often, Ristau claims, caused some Portlanders to simply put their garbage into their recycling bins, since those are still collected every week. The amount of nonrecyclable material Far West received doubled in the first month after the switch.
“Changing that program immediately changed our whole business,” says Ristau, who started at Far West as a manager-trainee more than two decades ago and today co-owns the business with six other managers.