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Portland man with autism finds independence, purpose with home recycling company

James Harris and his mother started a recycling business that collects items not accepted curbside. It's expanded to hundreds of customer and events around the area.

PORTLAND, Ore. — 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.

Credit: KGW

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Diagnosed on the autism spectrum: James was fascinated by recycling

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.

RELATED: Recycled skateboard parts become jewelry and keepsakes at Portland woman's shop

Credit: KGW

RELATED: Portland man's neighborhood recycling service takes off

James Neighborhood Recycling expands

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.

Credit: KGW

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.

Does all this stuff really get recycled? 'Absolutely!'

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.

Credit: KGW

Hiring more people on the autism spectrum

As the business grows, James and his Mom want to hire more people like James. Employees like Sam, who also has autism, performed DJ duties for the James Recycling event.

"I'm just playing the music in the background," Sam said.

Alex Tenison, who sorted plastics at the number 4 recycling station, is also on the autism spectrum. 

"I'm helping James," he said, as he tossed some squeezable plastic containers into a sorting bag.

Their long term goal is to hire more full and part-time employees and find permanent places for them to have jobs at the James Recycling events.

"It means so much to me that I can help people who are on the spectrum or have other abilities and also help the community to recycle," Kathi Goldman said.

Credit: KGW

Giving hope to other parents of children with autism

She gets a lot of questions from other parents who have children with autism who ask her how she did it. Kathi likes to give them hope.

"Just being able to reassure them it's hard when they're young. It won't always be this hard. It will get easier. I have been in the same struggle they're in. It feels good to give them hope," she said.

Credit: KGW

James finds his place in the world

James makes a salary now, lives independently, and has found his place in the world.

"He's embraced by the community which didn't always happen when he was younger. To see all these people come out to support him and his dream is to me, as a mom, it's wonderful," Kathi said.

At the recycling event at Mittleman Jewish Community Center, James and his crew collected 3,000 pounds of discarded items that would have otherwise ended up in the landfill. Like the recyclables he collects, James' life has been transformed through his dream to help save the world.

“He wanted to do something good for the planet and it’s turned into something that’s good for James,” said DJ Mahler, one of James’ aides.

At the end of the James Neighborhood recycling event, as they broke down the tents and tables in a downpour and loaded up their van, James and Kathi hugged, and James gave his mom a thumbs up sign.

"I'm just so proud of him," Kathi said. “I think he’s living the dream, now.”

Where to find the next James Neighborhood Recycling events

The next James Neighborhood Recycling events are:

  • Saturday, July 30, 2022: 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at Exceed Enterprises, 5285 SE Mallard Way Milwaukie, OR 97222
  • Saturday, August 13, 2022: Columbia Sportswear Headquarters, 14375 NW Science Park Drive, Portland, OR 97229

For event details, information on how to sort and to sign up for event notifications, click here to visit James Neighborhood Recycling's website.

Credit: KGW

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