Coffee cups, granola bar wrappers and chip bags all have one thing in common. They end up in a landfill. Despite the best of intentions and focus on recycling and reducing there will always be items that end up needing to be disposed of and usually those items end up in a landfill.
But on July 15 the Metro Council heard about options that could reduce the amount of stuff that the region ships off to a landfill.
At the end of 2019 the contracts for how the region disposes of 90 percent of its trash will expire, and Metro will have to decide well before then whether to adjust how that waste is managed.
In response to the 2019 deadline Metro staff has been looking at the alternatives that are out there for taking care of solid waste. Initially solid waste staff investigated 14 technologies for managing solid waste. Some are familiar, like landfills, and others are cutting edge, such as pyrolysis (a process of converting waste to gases, liquids and solid fuels like charcoal).
After investigating all of the options, several were eliminated from consideration because there were either unfeasible or unproven. A handful will be examined further and given to the Council for eventual decision.
"We believe we are obligated to at least consider these other options," said Paul Ehinger, Metro's solid waste operations manager.
Some of those options have plenty of upside, both for decreasing the amount of garbage that eventually ends up in a landfill and potentially for being a source of revenue.
One solution, called advanced materials recovery, is being used in San Jose, Calif. and is a way to divert some recyclables from getting in landfills. This type of management requires advanced machines to do the sorting or lots of people to manually grab recyclables out of the trash. But it's estimated that advanced materials recovery can increase the recycling rate by 10 to 20 percent.
Other options being considered have the potential to recover energy that can be sold to utilities companies or on the open market.
Direct combustion, or burning trash, has made big leaps in recent years. According to Rob Smoot, a chemical engineer for Metro, the process of recovering energy from burning trash has gotten 1000 times cleaner than 30 years ago and 10 times cleaner than 10 years ago.
Two more scientific processes are also under consideration, gasification and anaerobic digestion. Both of these approaches create gases, which are then used to create electricity or used as alternative fuels. The electricity can be used to power the solid waste plant and can even be sold to utility companies. Fuels created can be used by industry and can serve as substitutes for coal and other fossil fuels.
Ehinger and Smoot also indicated that the continued use of landfills as a primary disposal method is one possible outcome, and may be the cheapest option. But considering these alternative options isn't just about reducing trash.
"It's not just about waste energy," said Councilor Carlotta Collette during this week's council work session. "It's about getting the best value for the public's money."
After the initial discussion on Tuesday, Metro staff will continue to study these options and are scheduled to report again to the Council early next year.