These steps are the latest in a series the council has taken as Metro approaches the 2019 expiration of the contract that has most of the region’s one million tons of garbage each year going to landfills. It’s a rare opportunity to make changes to the system. The current landfill arrangement started in the early 1990s.
“For an engineer, a project like this doesn’t come along very often,” said Metro solid waste operations director Paul Ehinger in his discussion with the council. Metro solid waste engineer Rob Smoot presented additional information about the potential benefits Metro could explore in generating energy from garbage and reducing landfill disposal along with the questions that still need to be answered to determine if new approaches are viable.
After the presentation and discussion, the council directed Metro staff to pursue two specific options that would reduce the amount of garbage going to landfills. But the direction comes with caveats. Councilor Sam Chase echoed the sentiments of other councilors when raising the question of environmental benefits. “That’s a baseline criteria for me,” he said.
Oregon plant could make energy with Portland garbage
Last summer, Metro received expressions of interest from four companies seeking a partnership to turn trash into power. One was from Covanta, which has operated a waste-to-energy plant just north of Salem since the late 1980s. Covanta has proposed to double the capacity of that facility – without expanding its footprint – in order to take up to 200,000 tons of garbage from the Portland region each year. It says it can do it without financing from Metro.
On Tuesday the council directed Metro staff to explore that option with Covanta and to bring back answers to key questions that could help councilors in the next phase of decision-making. This includes looking at the health and environmental impacts of burning garbage at the Covanta facility, transportation impacts and how much garbage must be guaranteed to a new facility. In short, staff must determine whether there are advantages to diversifying the ways the region manages its garbage.
Increasing recycling by sorting garbage is also an option
In addition to waste-to-energy, the council also directed Metro staff to explore “advanced materials recovery” – a fancy term for the process that, with the use of machinery and human hands, helps pull recyclables out of what would otherwise be disposed of as garbage. Using such technology to handle some of the trash in the Portland region would have multiple implications – and costs. And because the region already recycles so much, it’s not immediately clear whether it’s worth trying to get more out of the garbage.
Part of that “worth” depends on two things: what materials the process would focus on, and whether those materials would have value in recycling markets. In addition, the cost of reconfiguring individual transfer stations, and potentially the overall system that serves the region to ensure the most sorting, will all need to be considered.
Answering key questions could take a year or more
Metro staff estimated that the work of turning these options into real choices that show multiple costs and benefits could take more than a year, but Councilor Kathryn Harrington issued caution. “I just don’t want this to drag on and on,” she said.
In addition to the environment, health and financial implications, other considerations will also come into play. For example, Councilor Shirley Craddick wondered about the impact of sending less garbage to the Arlington landfill east of Portland on the residents of Gilliam County who depend on the landfill as a jobs and revenue-generator.
In the meantime, since landfills will continue to be a part of the garbage puzzle no matter what additional options end up in the mix, a procurement process for landfill use will also start later this year.
“We’re still going to be throwing away a lot of stuff for a long time,” said Councilor Bob Stacey.
Metro live-tweeted the work session discussion.