Solid waste management system up for review by regional government

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Tony White pushes collected trash into a compactor at the Metro South transfer station in Oregon City. Reconfiguring the outdated system is part of Metros long-range solid waste plans.Metro has been in charge of managing the region’s solid waste for decades. Throughout that time, the regional elected government has worked to reduce the amount of solid waste going to landfills, with mixed results.

Metro proposed building a garbage-burning plant in the Oregon City area in early 1982. Clackamas County voters approved three initiative measures to ban it at the November 1982 election.

Metro backed an industrial composting plant in North Portland in the early 1990s. It closed after less than a year because of technical problems.

And most recently — earlier this year — commercial food waste from Metro’s solid waste transfer station in North Portland was diverted to the Nature’s Needs composting plant in North Plains. The Washington County Commission pulled the permit because of odor complaints from residents in the area, and the 2013 Oregon Legislature subsequently passed a bill making it more difficult to site composting plants in the region.

In fact, Metro has never met goals mandated by the state of Oregon for diverting solid waste from landfills. The 2011 goal set by the Department of Environmental Quality was 64 percent. The best Metro could do was 59.3 percent.

Despite that, Metro officials now are talking about allowing their contract with the large landfill in eastern Oregon, run by Waste Management, to lapse when it expires in 2019. The Columbia Ridge Landfill near Arlington has accepted most of the region’s leftover solid waste since the St. Johns Landfill closed in 1991.

The Columbia Ridge Landfill received 1.1 million tons of so-called “nonrecoverable discards” last year alone. It was delivered by trucks driving 300-mile round trips up the Columbia River Gorge. They were all empty on the return trip.

Ending the contract is one of many options Metro will consider over the next few years as part of a process called the Solid Waste Roadmap. It was reviewed by the Metro Council on Oct. 29 as a structured way to study, evaluate and decide multiple regional solid waste issues before the contract expires.

“What we need to do is generate a sense of urgency [about making these decisions] without creating an emergency,” said Paul Slyman, Metro’s director of parks and environmental services, who is leading the project.

Metro hopes to begin making both short- and long-term decisions by 2017. Among other things, the well-used, but cramped, South Transfer Station in Oregon City needs to be reconfigured in the near future. It was designed to feed the burner that voters rejected and is outdated. The council also will consider additional options for reducing solid waste generated by businesses, single-family homes and at construction and demolition sites.

Slyman said advanced technologies could well be part of the mix. They include bio-digesters and burners that convert leftover garbage into energy. Such facilities are already being used in other parts of the country and Europe.

“Questions that need to be answered about them include such things as location, cost and who pays for them,” Slyman said.

To help answer those questions, Metro plans to launch a public engagement process called “Let’s Talk Trash” next year. Slyman said it will involve various forums throughout the region, including some modeled after OMSI’s popular Science Pub talks.

Original goals unrealistic

DEQ officials do not criticize Metro for failing to meet its solid waste reduction goal. The state only met its 50 percent recovery goal in 2010, a full decade behind schedule. Metro actually has increased its recovery rate by more than 11 points since 1997, when it was 48 percent.

“The 64 percent goal may have been unrealistic when it was set,” admitted Leslie Kochan, a DEQ waste reduction specialist.

Metro’s most recent Solid Waste Management Plan, adopted in 2008 and approved by the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission in 2009, acknowledges the gap and lays out plans for closing it. They include public education campaigns and programs targeting specific kinds of businesses.

“Metro’s current Solid Waste Management Plan is very thorough,” Kochan said.

Kochan noted that Metro also is making progress on diverting commercial food waste from landfills. Although Portland’s commercial food waste is not being accepted at Nature’s Needs, it is now being trucked to composting plants outside the region, which counts toward the recovery goal.

Metro is also encouraging other local governments in the region to start their own commercial food composting programs, including Beaverton and Hillsboro.

In fact, Kochan said Metro now is doing everything it can to meet the 64 percent recovery goal. The question is, how quickly can Metro exceed that?

System is a complex web

The regional solid waste management system is a complex mix of public policies, public and private facilities and private businesses. It evolved during the years from the recognition that landfill space is limited in the state, especially in urban areas. Growing efforts to find the most environmentally friendly methods of disposing of solid waste also have played a role.

The 1983 Legislature declared solid waste management to be a matter of statewide concern when it passed the state’s first Opportunity to Recycle Act. It stated that in order to conserve energy and natural resources, solid waste management should follow a hierarchy that began with waste reduction and moved on to reuse, recycling, composting, energy recovery and, only then, disposal.

The act also established so-called wastesheds for solid waste management. They include the individual counties and Metro, which has jurisdiction over Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties. The act required monthly curbside recycling in all cities with more than 4,000 people.

The 1991 Oregon Recycling Act set a statewide recycling goal of 50 percent by 2000 and interim recovery goals for the wastesheds by 1995. It gave DEQ more authority over solid waste management, including the responsibility of monitoring compliance with the goals. The 2001 Oregon Legislature set 2005 and 2009 wasteshed reduction goals, and required the DEQ to recommend policy changes for any wasteshed that failed to meet its goal.

The 1997 Oregon Legislature mandated more programs for meeting the state and wasteshed goals, including weekly curbside recycling, yard debris collection, garbage pickup rates to encourage reduction and recycling and composting programs for commercial and industrial food waste.

For Metro, meeting the state mandates has been a complex process. Metro itself does not collect solid waste. That process is established and regulated by the local governments within it. Nor does Metro own any disposal sites. It has established two large public transfer stations, but also has contracted with private companies for similar services in outlying areas.

Mike Dewey, a lobbyist who represents Waste Management, said the company is already working with Metro on the project. In addition to landfills, Waste Management operates some of the newer facilities Metro will be studying.

“We anticipate still being a partner with Metro when the final decisions are made,” Dewey said.

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