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This weekly ritual has a kind of mundane magic: Set out rotting shrimp, cat litter, empty gin bottles, and unopened phonebooks, and soon growling trucks with robotic claws will tip it into their bellies and take it all away.
But where is “away?”
It’s Metro’s job to plan for and manage “away” – that is, how the stuff in bins and dumpsters across the Portland region gets collected and where it goes. It’s what the trash wonks call the solid waste system, and it handles the recycling, the yard debris, the construction waste and the food waste.
It also handles the garbage.
In 2013, in 25 cities across Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties, more than 64 percent of what businesses and residents threw away was recovered – recycled, composted or converted to energy. What was left over was garbage.
A million tons of garbage.
That much garbage would fill up 2,500 Olympic-size swimming pools.
And all that trash has to go somewhere.
Right now, that's primarily a landfill. The solid waste system is set up that way, through contracts that expire at the end of 2019. With that date on the horizon, the Metro Council is discussing opportunities to do more with what the region throws away. While landfills will continue to be the destination for a large portion of the region’s trash, there may be ways to use more garbage as a resource.
If you find all this hard to picture, you’re not alone. That’s because what happens to the stuff you throw away is largely invisible once you’ve closed the lid of your trash bin. Here’s a look at the journey of trash, from your home or workplace, to roll carts or dumpsters, to trucks, to transfer stations, to bigger trucks, and then, mostly, to landfills.
From the curb to the garbage truck
Along with the familiar sounds of rolling carts and dumpsters, the churning engines, grinding compactors and piercing backup alarms of garbage trucks have become a part of our everyday soundscapes.
Mark Hillison is a garbage hauler for Walker Garbage Services. He’s the sole driver and operator of an automated side-loading truck and he’s out on his Cedar Mill and Forest Heights route in Northwest Portland at 6 a.m. sharp. He spends the next six hours picking up household trash.
Not much surprises him. “I’ve been doing this for 25 years. I’ve seen everything.”
The one thing he brings on every shift: “Dog biscuits.” His canine friends hear the sound of the truck and come out to greet him. “The dogs,” he says, “always know exactly what day it is.”
From the garbage truck to the transfer station
Once the trucks are fully loaded, drivers like Hillison take their five-ton loads to one of several transfer stations in the region. Metro operates two of them – one in Northwest Portland and one in Oregon City – and there are four privately run transfer stations, too. At a transfer station, garbage from homes and businesses is transferred from local garbage trucks to long-haul trucks, which then take garbage to its next – and generally final – destination.
“The garbage must go – we’re kind of like the postal service in that way,” says Penny Erickson, a solid waste planner at Metro.
Erickson has worked with trash in one way or another for 29 years, and she loves her job. “It’s a mixture of operations, customer service, safety, environmental compliance and politics – all influenced by market forces,” she says.
But a transfer station is much more than just a stopover for garbage. Metro’s Central Transfer Station in Northwest Portland is loud, bustling – and smelly at times. Haulers bring garbage, food scraps and yard debris from homes and businesses. Contractors bring truckloads of construction waste. And residential customers bring whatever they can’t get rid of through their home collection service.
People come here when they’re divorcing or when they want to make a new start, and some of what they bring is new or still functional. “A wide range of emotions leads to things getting in the trash,” says Erickson.
“I have a concrete sink,” says a man in the bay reserved for drop-offs from members of the public. He’s talking to a spotter, who shows him where to unload. Nearby, a woman dumps a bamboo chair frame near a cracked toilet, and two men throw a mishmash of rope and plastic off the back of a pickup.
In the next bay along, trucks upend waste from businesses: a jagged mountain of Styrofoam panels settles next to a heap of sagging desks, steel shelves, and cubicle partitions.
Inside Metro's Central Transfer Station
From the transfer station, some garbage gets a second life, the rest gets buried
Whatever the reason it ends up at the transfer station, "self-haul" and construction waste goes onto a sort line where pickers pull out cardboard, metals, plastics and other recyclables. Doors and usable household items go to places like the Rebuilding Center to be reused. Old tires are processed and used to repave basketball courts, broken porcelain is ground up and used in roads.
Nearly half a million tons of trash were processed at the two Metro transfer stations last year.
Once it’s been sorted, trash tumbles onto a garbage mountain where a wheel loader grinds back and forth. “He’s mixing stuff into a consistent density before sending it up the chute into the compactor,” explains Erickson.
From the compactor, trash is fed – 34 tons at a time – into the containers of long-haul trucks. Five days of every week, 60 trucks set off from Metro’s Central and South transfer stations.
They go east for 150 miles to the Columbia Ridge Landfill near Arlington, in the dry sage brush plains.
Then they drive the 150 miles back, empty, to be filled again.
Food scraps: A big piece of the garbage puzzle
In discussions and decisions about making more use of garbage as a resource, food scraps play a big role. That’s because right now, food waste makes up nearly a fifth of the garbage that gets sent to the landfill.
On a recent day at Metro Central, hillocks of jewel-colored fruits and vegetables covered the floor of the bay for “commercial organics” aka food scraps from businesses. The air was heavy with the sweet stink of rot. “The school kids I take on tours always plug their noses,” said Metro solid waste planner Penny Erickson.
Every last drop is wrung from this treasure, even the liquid that oozes from the rotting produce. It’s called leachate. This brown, bubbling brew is collected in tubs and sent along with the solid food waste to a facility near Junction City to make two things: compost, and “biogas” – a methane fuel produced by fermenting organic matter.
While the current system does put some food waste to use, the Metro Council is looking at ways to keep more food scraps out of the garbage moving forward.