David and Michela McMahon founded Cloudburst Recycling in 1975, soon after moving into their Irvington home. David McMahon recalls the day an older man wearing a leisure suit parked his car in front of the McMahons’ Irvington home, came to the door and said the arts and crafts style house built in 1908 was designed and constructed for his grandfather, Franz Deggendorfer, a German immigrant. The visitor showed the McMahons a black-and-white photo of their home, with its shoulder-high saplings in the parking strip and only one other building in the background.
The McMahon house was one of 13 homes bought in 1970 by the Learning Community, established by former Reed College professors and students. In 1974, the 3,000-square-foot house located on the corner of Northeast Brazee and 10th Avenue was run down. It needed a new roof and a coat of paint. Inside, the solidly built house featured box-beam ceilings and golden oak paneling. After renting it for five years, the McMahons bought the house and have never left. During the following decades, they raised three children and now share their home with a three-year-old Akita mix named Buddy Guy.
Recycling pilot projects
According to David McMahon, in 1973, a group of civically active women initiated a feasibility study called the Northeast Recycling Pilot Project. After Cloudburst was established, the group organized a political-style canvas with between 15 and 20 volunteers. Within the Irvington precinct, they signed up 200 customers. “It was a resounding success,” Michela McMahon said.
In 1974, Portland State University Professor Rich Duncan introduced the McMahons to a company named Sunflower Recycling, a collectively managed offshoot from the Portland Recycling Team. Sunflower and Cloudburst shared a State Highway Department warehouse where one of their projects was food-waste composting. Food scraps collected on route were mixed with horse manure in rat-proof cages using pitch forks to turn the piles. “It became too labor-intensive to go large scale, but we made great compost,” said David McMahon.
In 1976, Cloudburst obtained the first Metro food waste compost license in Portland. Metro had no standards or procedures in place to compost, so the McMahons created a list of criteria, including vector control and zoning. They used a cement mixer to aerate composted materials, but found it was labor intensive and not efficient. Today, food-generating businesses are required to compost, but there’s no enforcement mechanism, according to David McMahon.
The state sold the warehouse location, but not to Cloudburst, and the company stopped food waste collection. The McMahons learned a lot about garbage hauling in Portland in 1975 when they founded one of the first recycling companies in the nation.
Cloudburst recycling founded
Cloudburst is a family owned and operated business, initially established as a demonstration project to show that recycling can be done and that people would pay a fee for the service. Cloudburst is the oldest full-service recycling collection operation in the Portland area, offering a single service: garbage collection and recycling. “The recycling project was an interim thing until I got a job,” said David McMahon. It was good for the community and it was a new thing, according to Michela McMahon. “We wanted a project to make a living and make a difference in the community, so we plunged right in,” she said.
David McMahon added, “Cloudburst fostered good business relationships based on mutual respect, trust and communication. Plus, it allowed us to create and invent things.”
History of hauling garbage
In the 1970’s, Portland had more than 100 garbage haulers, largely mom-and-pop businesses that owners passed down to family members. “A son would buy the father’s garbage hauling route and it became the dad’s retirement,” said David McMahon. In the Irvington neighborhood, several companies collected garbage, often on the same block, dividing routes based on gentlemen’s agreements. Although the city ran the dump, it wasn’t until the city franchised hauling operations that things began to change.
Today there are 18 residential garbage haulers in Portland; three are multi-national companies. “The city has a bureaucratic relationship with these companies; and operations are made more complex by demands of various constituencies: environmentalists, city needs, businesses and residents,” said David McMahon. “Businesses used to be based more on personal relationships.”
Strong community ties
Michela McMahon enjoys being an active member of the Irvington Community Association (ICA) and in summer 2009, participated with four neighborhood residents to build a mosaic bench shaped like a giant lizard for the Irvington Elementary School, 1320 N.E. Brazee St. They received a grant from the ICA and the group included John Olmsted, descendent of landscape designer and architect Frederick Olmsted who designed New York’s Central Park. The colorful mosaic tiled bench is located on school grounds where Irvington neighbors can exercise their dogs before and after school hours. “It was a collaborative process, balancing competing interests and bringing the neighborhood together,” Michela McMahon said.
Forty years later, the couple who met in 1974 when David was visiting Berkley, California where Michela McMahon once lived, continue their community service in Irvington. They started recycling with voluntary sign-ups and charged $1 a month to collect items for recycling. David McMahon still manages Cloudburst with a strong ethic of service for the community and his customers. Cloudburst employees are well known in the community, where they provide service and enjoy positive relationships with their customers.