BuiltOregon

Finding a new way through recycling

Alando Simpson takes one look at my shoes and decides to keep the tour short.

“I don’t want you to step on any nails,” he says.

His boots sink into increasingly softening ground as we circle the small house at the center of two acres in Northeast Portland’s Parkrose neighborhood. The house—or, more precisely, its basement—is home to City of Roses Disposal & Recycling, a waste hauler-turned-recycling-facility founded by Alando’s father, Al.

Alando stands next to one of the pieces of heavy equipment lined up against the wall of the house.

“The grinder,” he says, reaching into a small pile of spare parts and filling his hand with a softball-sized metal tooth that will soon be chewing wooden building debris into 3-4 inch chips prime for paper mills. At one point in its rumbling, diesel-fueled life, somebody scrawled “The Beast” in black marker on the side of the grinder’s front panel—a name Alando says fits a machine that can slice and dice its way through 40 cubic yards of wood per day during construction season.

“That’s a lot of good wood,” Alando says, as places his hands back in the pockets of his brightly colored Columbia jacket.

City of Roses truckThe Beast sits quiet today, but the rest of City of Roses’ recycling facility is abuzz. A half-dozen men dressed head-to-steel-toe in reflective gear pick away at a pile of drywall pulled from a site near Lloyd Center. Under a barn-sized structure flanked by piles of different colored plastics, films, metals, wires, and cardboard, the men sort debris while negotiating the movements of ever-beeping heavy machinery. To their left and right, expanding collages of industrial, commercial, and residential waste is being salvaged and stockpiled by City of Roses and its growing recycling division, CORE.

It’s a cold January morning. Our breath hangs in the air, as does a patch of fog at the other side of the lot.

“If we can’t find value, it’s going to be a cost,” Alando says. “So we try to recycle as much as we possibly can.”

Turns out, “waste not” is more than a good business practice for the Simpsons, it’s a way of life.

A consuming hobby

We walk past the vehicle scale that’s a staple of most recycling facilities and Alando stops next to a truck parked at the front of the house. It’s a lot like the rig Al drove to drop off his oldest son at Northwest Portland’s Lincoln High, he says, a bit beat up with rusty scars that stood out amid BMWs and Lexuses, but just as functional.

City of Roses dumpsterTo call Al “frugal” is an understatement, Alando says, describing his dad as notorious for rarely ever spending money—and almost never buying anything brand new.

“Unless its underwear or socks, he’s always going to buy used,” said Alando.

Enjoy the fruits of his labor? Al rarely had a moment, especially after he started City of Roses in 1996—while working full time as a truck driver for the City of Portland’s maintenance bureau.

“It was supposed to be a hobby,” Al said. “I used to go drinking beers with the buddies every night. That shit got old, y’know? I was like, ‘I can’t do this.’ I had to figure out something else to do. I knew I could drive a truck, and I needed something I could do after work and on the weekends.

“Garbage—they’re open seven days a week.”

A recurring work ethic

Al was born and raised in the Humboldt neighborhood of North Portland. His father, Oscar, worked on the railroad.

“He worked all of the time,” said Al.

Besides his weekday gig, Oscar took a second job managing the apartment complex where the family lived. He collected rent, mopped floors, and kept the toilets running on weekends and after hours.

“I remember he used to ask me to help him mop the floors and I always wanted to go play basketball or football on the weekends,” Al remembers. “Sometimes I did, sometimes I didn’t. It makes me feel bad now, that I didn’t.”

“The times he’d say,” Al pauses, switching to the lower octave even older men reserve for imitating their fathers, ‘Go on, boy.’”

Oscar died in 1976 when Al was 20. But his work ethic lived on in Al.

Al realized that, while Oscar worked hard—and he, himself, worked hard—it had always been for someone else. A fact he continued to consider as City of Roses grew in the early 2000s, and he began feeling spread too thin. Family members urged Al to retire from the city and focus on his own business.

He said he couldn’t. Not yet, anyway.

“His standard line was that he wouldn’t retire from the city unless we had our own facility,” says Alando, 31, who joined the family business in 2004 and graduated from Portland State University in 2007. Once on the inside, Alando quickly saw why his father—and a hauler like City of Roses—would want its own recycling center to process the goods: Picking up and carrying waste from homes and businesses to recycling centers and landfills was only so profitable, particularly with waste fees, overhead, repairs, and taxes inching up as the business grew.

The idea of a facility had legs, but it was just an idea. Al and Alando weren’t sure where to start.

The light bulb moment

Al started with a single truck. One that had been sitting in front of his house for three months before he landed his first job.

Climbing into the truckHe poured all his free time into City of Roses, which grew steadily. Eventually, the phone was ringing too much. Al wasn’t exactly enjoying his “hobby” anymore. Family and friends helped for stretches here and there, but the seven-day workweeks mounted, and those closest to Al grew increasingly worried he’d work himself to death.

Taking over the family business can be a tough sell as it is, but when that business is trash? Alando wasn’t exactly feeling it, especially in his early 20s.

“My life was too easy,” he said. “I was doing a lot of fun stuff because a friend of mine was in the NBA, and my life was too easy. My dad was working his butt off.”

That didn’t sit well with Alando.

“I was like, ‘There’s no way I can hang out in this environment,” he said. “To essentially rely on the revenue of friends to determine success—that doesn’t make a man in my eyes.’”

Alando started at City of Roses working admin roles, where he often dealt with contractors. Their most consistent complaint centered on low recycling rates for their projects, particularly if they were striving to achieve LEED certification. Alando felt their pain, but as a hauler taking debris from site to dump, there was little City of Roses could do.

“That’s when the bulb went off,” Alando said.

City of Roses would open the facility Al always talked about, but it would specialize in helping contractors attain higher, more accurate recycling rates than the competition—often multi-billion-dollar, multinational waste companies who aren’t about to overhaul their proven operations model.

“Recycling is not why they’re in business,” Alando says. “The margins on landfilling are higher because there’s no labor. They’re going to recycle what they can, because it’s the status quo thing to do, but in reality they’re just trying to move stuff as fast as they can.”

One person’s trash…

Alando soaked up everything he could about LEED and wrote a business model targeted toward a niche, but growing market of contractors seeking higher recovery rates and the certification that went along with it.

The banks passed, but after receiving assistance from the Portland Development Commission and State of Oregon, traversing Metro and DEQ regulations, and paying system development charges, City of Roses had what it needed to break ground on its own facility in 2011. They spent a financially shaky 2012 under construction (“There were times we didn’t pay ourselves,” Alando says) and were officially permitted to “tip” (AKA dump) waste on April 1, 2013.

Quickly securing an 18-month job at Intel enabled City of Roses to build cash flow and acquire equipment (used, of course) like trailers, fifth wheels, tractors, boxes, excavators, and forklifts. And less than five months after the facility opened, Al retired from the city. But he’s by no means stopped working.

“I’ll come out here on a Sunday, and he’ll be here doing something,” Alando says. “He can’t stop. It’s almost a gift and a curse.”

“It’s gift because you see the work ethic, and you understand what it takes. But the curse is when you’re trying to implement different procedures and processes and tasks.”

Alando smiles.

“The numbers get skewed because he does things outside of what’s supposed to be recorded data,” Alando says. “I’m just trying to get him to understand that he’s going to be more of an asset to the company if he provides wisdom, instead of his actual hands-on work.”

I ask Alando how Al takes that constructive criticism.

“He’s not hearing it,” Alando laughs. “He’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah.’”

Building up by tearing down

Al and Alando’s desks sit within a few yards of each other in the basement office, a space whose wood floor carries the basketball lines from the gym it was salvaged from. Al’s desk looks too organized to be heavily used—its neat stacks of papers and business cards a sure sign the older Simpson does most of his work out on in the field.

“Shit, I work harder now than I did when I worked for the city,” Al laughs, toothpick out the left side of his mouth, a bright-yellow construction vest across his chest. “That was a gravy job. This is work.”

Alando and AlOne look at Alando’s cavernous office area shows the workaholic tendencies didn’t fall far from the family tree. In addition to being vice president of City of Roses and CORE, the father of two chairs the Oregon Sports Authority, helps run the FAST (Fitness And Sustenance Training) camp, sits on the state transportation board, and is treasurer for the National Association of Minority Contractors.

What’s more, Alando CrossFits on weekday mornings at 5:30 and plays hoops on Saturdays.

His calendar mirrors the walls of his workspace, which is covered with posters, notes, and maps of Portland. A large, hand-written list tacked above his desk stands out.

It reads: “THINGS WE NEED FOR GROWTH”

Beneath, there are practical purchases (“more drop boxes” and “newer equipment”) and larger projects (“new wood process” and “obtain a franchise”). But when it comes right down to it, the area Alando thinks will best build up City of Roses is, ironically, tearing things down.

“We’re looking at deconstruction and demolition,” Alando says, noting the highly regulated and often politically franchised waste industry can present more barriers than growth opportunities, especially when his competition is multinational corporations. “I don’t really have the ability to take their market share. So for me, it’s ‘how do I create new markets or concepts within the industry?’”

With a deconstruction division, City of Roses would add taking apart buildings (while carefully maintaining anything that has value to it) to its hauling and recycling repertoire. They’d pick a structure clean of salvageable 2×4, 4×6, or 2×6 pieces of wood and either resell them or grind them into material for fabricated and engineered wood (which Alando says can be more sustainable than concrete and steel and more flexible than traditional wood during earthquakes).

“A lot of demolition companies will haul their own debris, but none of them have their own recycling facilities—so at the end of the day, they’ll at some point pay for waste,” Alando says.

“We can recycle whatever waste we have. Salvage, reuse, recycle, discard—especially in a sustainably conscious region like Oregon, it gives us a lot of upside for providing alternative value. There’s a different cultural sentiment here. To me, Oregon is just one word that’s an extension of the term ‘organic.’ It’s the original root way of how people should be.”

For more information, visit http://www.cityofrosesdisposal.com/.

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Brian Gjurgevich

Brian Gjurgevich is a writer, editor, and enthusiast from Portland. His journalism career has seen him chased by bucking broncos, getting up to speed with millionaire auto racers, and for the past four seasons, kicking it with the Portland Timbers as a footy correspondent for the Portland Mercury. He’s written for The Oregonian and Associated Press and has picked up bylines in the San Francisco Chronicle, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Salt Lake Tribune, and many more. When he’s not in the middle of the action, Brian works as a Creative Lead for AHA!, a strategic communications agency in Vancouver, Wash., and is a founder of Intro, a brand marketing agency in Portland.