Like a patrolman on the beat, Lee Barrett strides into a Chinese restaurant, flashes his ID card and has a look around. "StyroCop" is on the trail of illicit carryout containers.
The city has gotten a complaint that the restaurant is putting its egg rolls and fried rice in boxes that violate Portland's year-old ban on polystyrene foam fast-food containers.Barrett, 44, a longtime environmental activist, is the ban's enforcer. A local television reporter dubbed him StyroCop - a takeoff on the movie "RoboCop" - his first day on the job, and he's become something of a celebrity.
But while he's easily Portland's most visible environmentalist, Barrett is reluctant to take credit for leading the city into the "green decade."
"What I do is a fly speck as far as recycling is concerned," he said. "Others do so much. A lot of people have been toiling . . . and they're still out there doing the work."
Barrett moved to Portland from New York in 1972, a year after the Oregon Legislature passed the nation's first "bottle bill" imposing a 5-cent deposit on beverage cans and bottles.
The bill was Barrett's first real exposure to recycling.
"Except for a dim, dim memory of saving tin cans during the Korean War, there was no recycling consciousness at all," he said.
Within a few years, Barrett was on the board of Portland Recycling Team Inc., a can-and-bottle depot. By 1978, he was general manager. When Portland advertised for a contractor to enforce the plastic foam ban, he applied.
Barrett believes Americans must go beyond recycling by rejecting products that are overpackaged and becoming accustomed to using things again and again.
"As a recycler, our creed has always been reduce, reuse, recycle," he said. "Recycling is the last thing to do before you throw it away."
Opponents of the ban argue that environmentalists should work with the industry to make polystyrene recyclable. Otherwise, they say, restaurants will substitute paper, which will wind up in landfills.
The Portland law does not restrict containers made of paper or plastic not blown into foam. Those have been the alternatives used by fast-food restaurants, the only industry affected by the Portland law. Few have been willing to switch to glassware and dishes.
The 1.2 million people in the metropolitan area send 99,000 tons of plastic to the landfill each year. That is 9 percent by weight of Portland's garbage and 18 percent to 20 percent by volume.
Business cited by Barrett face fines of $250 for a first offense and $500 for each subsequent offense.