Every day in Oregon City, there's a little bit of traffic chaos. Cars swing left, trucks right, trailers head down ramps as Metro workers direct and keep some semblance of order.
That's life at the Metro South Transfer Station, the accidental place to take your trash.
Now 30 years old, Metro South was originally planned to be a place to burn garbage, not to sort it. That's led to operational challenges today – and questions about what Metro South should look like tomorrow.
From burner to sorter
More than three decades ago, waste managers had a plan to address decreasing landfill capacity around Portland – they'd burn some trash at an incinerator near the Oregon 213 junction in Oregon City. That burned trash would power turbines to produce electricity.
Oregon City voters were so incensed with the idea that they amended the city charter in 1982 to ban garbage burning plants.
"It was sort of redesigned to become a pure transfer station, with a giant pit in the middle," said Chuck Geyer, a solid waste planner at Metro. "Once the St. John's Landfill was slated for closure, the facility went through a redesign to install giant solid-waste compactors."
It's been an ad-hoc process for Metro South. The facility was adapted to allow for more recovery of solid waste that was originally bound for the landfill. A second building was installed for more sorting. The site also features a hazardous waste recovery center.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the courtyard between Metro South's main buildings. After driving through the scalehouse, both professional haulers and average folks bringing trash are directed toward specific bays in either of the buildings.
There aren't crashes in the courtyard, Geyer said, "but it takes a lot of effort to do that."
Is that manpower that could be going into solid waste recovery – diverting re-usable stuff from being sent to the landfill?
"Absolutely," Geyer said.
A study in contrasts
The controlled chaos at Metro South is in stark contrast to the order at Metro Central, a more purpose-built solid waste station.
At Metro Central, in Northwest Portland's industrial district, tons of trash are picked through by workers along a lengthy conveyer belt. Anything that can be salvaged, from recyclables to rubble, is pulled out of the waste stream.
Paul Slyman, the director of Metro's Parks and Environmental Services Department, said close to 40 percent of the waste brought to Metro Central is diverted from the landfill and toward other uses. At South, less than a quarter of the waste is recovered.
"It's mostly the issue of floor space, space to spread stuff out and say 'Hey, this could live another life,'" Slyman said.
That's why Slyman and his staff are taking a hard look at the future of Metro South as they map out the future of the waste program as a whole. Metro is a few years into an effort called the Solid Waste Road Map, a comprehensive review of most of the Portland region's waste disposal and reuse system.
Metro South's future
Planning for the future of Metro South is complicated by its popularity. According to Slyman, about 85 percent of customers are satisfied with the facility as it is. Oregon City Mayor Doug Neeley said members of his community appreciate having a place close to home – but not too close, as Metro South isn't near many houses – to take their waste.
Plus, fees on waste taken to Metro South pay for community enhancement grants for projects that benefit Oregon City. About $1.3 million in grants have been awarded to projects in that Clackamas County city.
"Oregon City High School's construction class has built a lot of facilities at our parks, and continue to do so," Neeley said. "That construction material has largely been funded out of that facility."
With little local pressure for the waste facility to move, the question becomes how to make Metro South work better without making life harder for customers.
"We don't want to disrupt service," Geyer said. "There may be off-site solutions we examine for portions of the work being done on-site now."
And toward the end of the decade, as Metro begins to implement its still-in-planning solid waste system revamp, what does Metro South look like?
"We're charged with taking more and more materials out of the waste stream," Slyman said. "Hopefully, you'd see changes that would allow South to recover something more along the lines of what Central recovers."