The Portland area's garbage is about to become a "free agent," and Metro is sitting pretty in coming contract talks.
Metro, the elected regional government that oversees the solid waste system, is reopening contracts to transport and dispose of much of the Portland area's garbage for the next 20 years. The resulting deals, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, could affect our garbage bills, greenhouse gas emissions, truck traffic through the Columbia River Gorge and the job market in Arlington, Oregon.
Under contracts first inked three decades ago, Metro now sends most of the Portland area's garbage 150 miles east to the Columbia Ridge landfill near Arlington. Each work day, 50 to 60 semi trucks haul that garbage through the gorge to Eastern Oregon.
By the end of 2019, those long-term contracts expire with Columbia Ridge owner Waste Management and Walsh Trucking, so Metro is shopping around for new deals.
In sharp contrast to 30 years ago, Metro is in the driver's seat, with at least three huge landfills competing to take the urban area's garbage.
Market now competitive
In the mid-1980s, Metro was hurting for a place to stow our trash. Existing landfills in Portland's St. Johns neighborhood and 82nd Avenue near Madison High School were filling up or closing, and siting a new landfill in the metro area proved impossible.
Waste Management, teaming with Gilliam County, saved the day, devising a plan to create a new landfill outside the city of Arlington. There, a landfill and the jobs that come with it would be welcomed.
After Metro sealed a 20-year contract with Waste Management effective 1990, two other huge landfills opened up east of the Cascades. Waste Connections opened the Finley Buttes Landfill near Boardman, also in Eastern Oregon. Republic Services opened the Roosevelt Regional Landfill across the Columbia River from Arlington in Washington.
Each of those three landfills has more than a 100-year supply of land to take municipal garbage, says Ken Ray, a Metro spokesman for solid waste matters.
The newly competitive market may help explain how Metro scored a better deal when it renewed its Waste Management contract for another 10 years. Metro figures that deal, which expires the end of 2019, saved the region about $60 million, Ray says.
Now the three big landfills, plus the smaller Wasco County Landfill near The Dalles, are expressing interest in taking Metro's garbage (though Wasco can't accommodate all of it). Metro is demanding that whoever wins the bid must be able to convert methane gas emanating from rotting garbage — a potent greenhouse gas — into renewable energy.
Metro also will seek new bids to transport trash to the winning landfill site, and is open to getting it there by truck, rail or barge.
"This is an opportunity to rethink where our garbage goes, and how it gets there and what happens then it gets there," Ray says.
The first 20-year contract with Waste Management was valued at $366 million, Ray says, and the 10-year contract with Walsh Trucking is worth about $100 million.
But the next batch of deals will be for smaller amounts of trash, because there are other "free agents" now besides Metro.
When the initial deal was struck, there was only one private transfer center where neighborhood haulers took their trash in the Portland area, in Forest Grove. Metro decided it would handle 90 percent of the region's garbage to leave some for Forest Grove.
Since the Columbia Ridge landfill contract was signed, Metro granted approval to four other private transfer centers, where garbage haulers take residential and commercial garbage. Waste Management, the nation's largest solid waste company, owns the transfer stations in Forest Grove and Troutdale. Republic Services owns one in Wilsonville. Two families own transfer centers in Sherwood and Gresham.
Multiple deals loom
Metro has required that 90 percent of the region's trash goes to Arlington, but won't in its new contracts. The 1994 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as CNA Carbone vs. Clarkstown set new legal ground for what's known as garbage "flow control," Ray says.
So in the new contracts, those five private transfer center owners will be free to arrange their own landfill and transportation deals.
Metro now manages roughly 1.3 million tons of garbage a year, sending the bulk of it to Arlington. The new Metro contracts will be for roughly 500,000 tons of garbage a year, shipped from Metro's Central and South transfer centers.
Ray says he assumes Waste Management and Republic Services will send garbage from their private transfer centers to the landfills they also own. But Jackie Lang, Waste Management of Oregon spokeswoman, says that depends, as some might send garbage to competitors' landfills. "It's all about the numbers and the geography," Lang says. "You might do that if you can get the right rate from a competitor."
No debate on distant landfills
At first glance, it might seem a waste of money to send garbage that far away just to bury it in the ground. But Bruce Walker, solid waste and recycling program manager for the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, says it's easier to manage the leachate leaking from landfills and other environmental issues in dry climates.
"Metro did absolutely the right thing in looking for a landfill out of the region," Walker says. "It would just be impossible" to site one in the urban area, he says.
Though burying garbage in the ground remains the cheapest way to dispose of it, Ray says, Metro is working hard to reduce the amount of trash sent to the landfill.
After a months-long review, the Metro Council recently ruled out sending 200,000
tons of garbage each year to Covanta's garbage incinerator in Brooks, north of Salem. But Metro is in the midst of picking a company to build a food-scraps processing facility closer to Portland for about 50,000 tons a year of garbage. Since food scraps in landfills is a chief source of methane emissions into the atmosphere, it has a high impact on climate change, Walker says.
Metro ultimately hopes to have about 100,000 tons a year of food scraps be processed, Ray says. That likely means sending it to an anaerobic digester, which uses bacteria in an oxygen-deprived unit to convert organic waste into reusable gas or electricity.
Metro also recently completed a study of barriers to recycling at area apartment and condo complexes, where residents have a lower rate of recycling. In the next year or two, Metro and local cities, especially Portland, will explore ways to boost recycling at multifamily complexes. That means less garbage going to a landfill.
Waste Management is worried that losing the Metro contract could endanger some of its 90 family-wage jobs at Columbia Ridge, Lang says. The landfill is the largest private employer in Gilliam County.
The impact on jobs there is one of many factors Metro is likely to consider as it fashions a Request for Proposals in coming weeks, along with cost, environmental impact, operational issues and community impacts.
Metro hopes to seek formal proposals for transporting and burying 500,000 tons a year of garbage later this year, and ink contracts by next spring. That will enable time for the winning companies to gear up, as needed, to ship and stow the garbage.