Food Freedom

New Oregon Wastewater Rules Threaten Portland's Food Cart Culture

Compliance could prove impossibly expensive for independent food sellers.


Food carts in Portland, Oregon, are under the gun due to new state wastewater disposal rules, Portland Monthly reported this week. The new rules, which debut next week, have forced some of the city's world-renowned carts to close—temporarily, they hope—while they try to figure out whether and how to comply.

Portland's beloved food carts are largely stationary vending operations that sell food out of spaces they share with other carts. These spaces, known in Portland as "pods," often feature a dizzying array of foods that put most any food court to shame regarding the variety and quality of foods they offer. Visitors to a pod might find a schnitzel cart parked next to other cart vendors selling steamed bao buns, pizzas, empanadas, meats on sticks, and crepes.

"Part of the reason why carts are so popular [in Portland]: there's a low barrier to entry to starting one, with lower upfront costs and less regulation involved than with brick-and-mortar restaurants," the Monthly details in its excellent piece. "But with new regulations regarding food carts and food cart pods taking effect on January 1, 2023, some cart owners are worried about their ability to keep their businesses open, and some have already made the decision to temporarily close, including Meliora Pasta and Papi Sal's."

The new rules made news this fall.

"Starting in January they must be connected to a sewage line or have their wastewater pumped on a regular basis," KGW8 reported in October. "In 2019, the Oregon Health Authority implemented a new rule that food [] carts and pods can no longer store wastewater. This is an effort to cut down on spills which create health and safety risks."

When it comes to commercial food wastewater disposal, the general approach—from the EPA to state and local regulations—prohibits businesses from dumping untreated wastewater into municipal sewage drains or other waters. As a result, many food businesses—food carts included—hire companies to dispose of such waste.

Today, the Monthly explains, Portland carts may dispose of wastewater "by connecting directly to the sewer with a grease interceptor, by collecting water in the cart's small onboard wastewater tank and frequently emptying that tank, or by collecting water in a large wastewater cube adjacent to the tank." The new rules largely eliminate the latter option and make the second option prohibitively expensive—which is also an inherent and ongoing problem with the first option.

Owners of many food carts, which Portland Monthly rightly calls "the heart" of the city's food culture, are struggling to figure out how to pay for the new disposal expenses. Existing disposal charges for carts have been around $80 per week, according to KGW8, and often involve carts emptying waste regularly into an on-site wastewater "cube" that can hold hundreds of gallons of wastewater and is emptied weekly. But the new rules, Portland Monthly explains, effectively ban such cubes and only allow carts to store small amounts of wastewater in onboard tanks.

Daily wastewater disposal can cost $70—several times the existing cost KGW8 reported—and that's if a wastewater hauler that works with food carts can be found and booked. The Monthly reports there are only two very overbooked haulers in the Portland area. Alternately, hooking up a pod to a municipal wastewater line can cost a property owner tens of thousands of dollars—charges the pod owners pass along to their tenant food carts.

"I've got a bid for a contractor that's $30,000, and we're not gonna do that," Tess Kies, who owns a food cart pod, tells the Monthly. "I know we won't keep [the pod] if the cost is outrageous. I'm concerned that [a lot of the carts around the city] are going to be put out of business."

The new wastewater regulations come at a particularly unwelcome time for Portland's food carts, which (along with other city eateries) have experienced declining revenues during this year's holiday season. Many well-liked carts in Portland already closed for good this year—even before the new rules take effect. Another issue with the new rules is that while they've been in the works for years, some food cart owners say they only found out about them in August. That's one reason some owners, the Monthly reports, are asking the city to delay enforcement.

I support keeping city sewers free of untreated commercial cooking grease and other food waste that can overwhelm them. Recall that in 2014, a "fatberg"—a disgusting blob the length of a Boeing 747 made up of used cooking oil (along with other gag-inducing waste)—was removed, over a period of several days, from a London sewer it was clogging.

Surely, though, there must be some other ways to prevent sewer fatbergs and the introduction of untreated wastewater into rivers and streams than forcing food cart owners to pay thousands of dollars in new fees to dispose of their wastewater. Delaying implementation of the new rules, as some are requesting, seems the least the state, county, and city can and should do. But what about, say, increasing penalties for wastewater spills and dumping? And, given Portland's health department claims wastewater cubes located at pods are sometimes hit by cars—leading to spills—why not require those cubes to be placed in areas no vehicle may access (e.g., by requiring them to be surrounded by inexpensive bollards)? Because the alternative—putting vital small food businesses in Portland's crisis-ridden downtown out of business—is no solution at all.