MAY 2009

A Closer Look E-mail the author

Portland Disposal
Jonie Simonton • 503-281-8736

Before 1991, Portland, Oregon had as many as 200 independent trash haulers. “Most of us operated out of our homes,” said Jonie Simonton, vice president of Portland Disposal & Recycling.

Jonie Simonton, along with her family, run Portland Disposal.

That all changed when the city required that the haulers had to buy a franchise in order to pick up trash in the city. As part of the franchise agreement, haulers had to have phones staffed eight hours a day, which didn’t make sense for the small companies who might get one or two calls a day.

At the time, Simonton and her husband owned Gatto Sanitary, which then merged with Salvi Sanitary and Cargni Sanitary to form Portland Disposal & Recycling. While Portland Disposal itself dates back to that merger in 1991, the oldest of the three founding companies traces its roots back to 1936 in Portland.

Gatto Sanitary had about 1,000 accounts in 1991, which grew to 9,000 after the companies merged. Now, the Portland Disposal has about 35,000 accounts, including both residential and commercial accounts. That translates to 45 routes every day, not including drop boxes.

Simonton explained that when the franchising began, haulers were given territories based on their current existing base. Not every residence in an area uses the garbage service, so some areas have fewer customers than estimated. While the system wasn’t perfect, she said that it was fair.

Since commercial accounts weren’t franchised, those are scattered around the city. Sometimes those accounts are serviced by one of the company’s owners. “All the partners are working partners,” Simonton said. “Nobody just sits back and does nothing.” For her part, Simonton acts as office manager, while other partners might work a route if someone is off sick, and there are plenty of meetings to attend and paperwork to take care of.

Simonton said that paperwork is one of the things that has changed a lot since she and her husband were working from home. “Billing is hugely improved,” she said, explaining that when they had 1,000 customers, doing paperwork by hand “worked quite well” but that the current automated billing and credit card payment by phone are much more efficient.

Communicating with drivers has also taken great leaps due to technology. Simonton recalled that she would leave handwritten notes for the drivers at the beginning of their routes, and not see them again until the end of the day. Now, it’s easy to contact a driver if plans need to be changed.

Meanwhile, Google Earth and Google’s Street View make it easier for new or replacement drivers to see exactly where they’re going on the routes – a far cry from the verbal directions of the past.

One of Portland Disposal’s trucks has been outfitted with a computer and onboard camera to take photos of the loads. “It’s very innovative,” Simonton said. What’s been working very well for the company for a while is the computer program “actually written by a garbage man,” that helps run the business.

Simonton said that one of the biggest challenges is getting people to understand what is recyclable. “We haul recycling, yard debris and garbage,” she explained, but some people have trouble figuring out what to put into each bin. As far as the recycling, the only thing that needs to be kept separate is glass, but “the biggest problem is plastic bags. They jam up the machinery.”

Right now, drivers can take photos of loads with their cell phones and send them back to the office in case customers have questions. In some cases, Simonton said, customers have found out that unauthorized people have dumped items into their trash or recycling bins. “We do have some problems with illegal dumping.”

Simonton’s husband has since passed away, but she still works with family members. “Both of my sons work here,” she said. “It’s wonderful. I get to see my boys every day when they check in.” She said that her sons also feel like they can be a part of what their father was involved in, and before him, their grandfather, who also had a garbage route in the city.

Other partners also have family members working at the company, although there are “a few whose kids branched off and did other things.”