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Metro talks trash, digs up hard lesson on recycling

Attention Portlanders, environmental expert Ed Humes has something to say. You are not as special as you think. In fact, when it comes to saving the world, you could learn a lesson from WalMart.

According to Humes, the average Portlander generates slightly more solid waste every day than the average American: 7.1 pounds. And even though Portlanders recycle at twice the national rate, Humes says that doesn’t cut it. Recycling takes energy, is inherently inefficient and generates its own solid waste in the end.

“Portlanders actually make slightly more trash than the national average. And even though they recycle more, that’s like being less bad,” says Humes, who notes that WalMart has reduced the solid waste it generates by roughly 80 percent in

recent years.

But even worse, even after all that recycling, there’s still more than 1 million tons of trash a year that needs to be disposed of. Most of it is trucked around 150 miles to a landfill run by Waste Management near Arlington in Eastern Oregon. It takes a caravan of about 50 diesel trucks to do the job every day — that’s 50 diesel-spewing trucks traveling 300 miles up and down the scenic Columbia Gorge every day just to dispose of your leftovers.

“That’s not sustainable,” says Humes.

Humes is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who has turned his attention to sustainability issues. His most recent book focuses on what happens to all the trash generated in America. Published in 2012, It’s called “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash.” An earlier book, “Forces of Nature: the Unlikely Story of WalMart’s Green revolution,” focused on the retail giant’s successful drive to reduce its solid waste to save money.

Metro, the elected regional government, brought Humes to town recently as part of its ongoing discussion series on what to do about the region’s garbage called “Let’s Talk Trash.” He spoke at the Portland City Club on July 11, where more than one member admitted to being dispirited after being taken to task by him.

“Even our greenest communities have a long ways to go,” Humes assured them.

Metro is in charge of figuring out what to do with the region’s trash, including the solid waste that hasn’t been recycled. The discussion series is part of a larger project called the “Solid Waste Roadmap.” It is an effort to help the elected Metro Council decide whether to do something different with the remaining trash when the Waste Management contract expires on Dec. 31, 2019.

Metro Councilor Carlotta Collette says the ultimate goal is to reach “zero waste,” the complete elimination of all garbage. But since that’s not realistically going to happen within the next five years, the council is trying to figure out if there are more sustainable ways to deal with the trash being landfilled every year.

The council received a briefing on the latest options on July 15. Metro staff presented six options for further study, beginning with the base case of renewing the Waste Management contract. Other options requiring building new facilities to reclaim more resources from the waste stream, burn the garbage to generate energy or break the garbage down to produce feedstock and useful materials.

“How do we handle our waste in a way that treats it like a valuable resource?” Metro solid waste expert Paul Ehlnger asked the council.

The council authorized Ehlinger and the other staff members working on the project to continue researching the options and return with updates over the next year, at which time the council will begin narrowing them down to the final choices. But Ehinger admitted he could not yet answer three of the most important questions the council had — where could such facilities be sited in the region, how much will they cost, and who will pay for them?

“It’s too early to say,” Ehinger said.

If a new facility is to be built, the council wants it sited in the region to reduce transportation emissions. But Metro has run into problems with earlier efforts to site and operate such facilities in the region.

The agency proposed building a garbage-burning plant in the Oregon City area in early 1982. Concerned about smelly and harmful fumes, Clackamas County voters approved three initiative measures to prevent its construction.

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

Most recently, an attempt to compost commercial food waste in North Plains last year ended because of odor complaints from residents in the area. The Washington County Commission pulled the permit because of the complaints and the 2013 Legislature subsequently passed a bill making it more difficult to site composting plants in the region.

The commercial food waste is being trucked from Metro’s transfer station in Northwest Portland to a bio-methane plant in Junction City. Residential food waste from Portland is still being accepted with yard debris at the Nature’s Needs facility along Highway 26, however.

Ehinger assured the council that new facilities, such as a large garbage-to-energy plant operating in Barcelona, Spain, are much cleaner and less controversial than the early plants. He said there were more than 800 such facilities in use around the world today.

The cost of such a facility is still a big unknown. So is the question of who would own and operate it, Metro or a private company. According to Ehlinger, answers won’t be forthcoming until the council decides what direction it wants to go. That process is scheduled to begin in earnest next July.

Let’s Talk Trash

In the meantime, the next Let’s Talk Trash events are two exhibits of art made from garbage that are scheduled to open on Friday, Aug. 8, at two adjacent spaces, Disjecta Contemporary Art Center and Nisus Gallery, 8371 N. Interstate Ave.

GLEAN, opening at Disjecta, is a group show featuring five emerging artists — Sarah Bernstein, Francesca Berrini, Alyssa Kail, Michelle Liccardo and Whitney Nye — displaying sculptures, collages and bas-relief works made from discarded objects. All of the materials were taken from Metro’s Central Transfer Station in Northwest Portland.

Opening simultaneously next door at Nisus Gallery, “Waste Not” is a solo show by Portland artist Natalie Sept. She, too, was given access to the Metro Central Transfer Station, spending many hours there to create a series of paintings that capture the daily lives of the employees who separate the discards that are dumped there.

According to Metro, the two exhibits aim to raise public awareness regarding our collective trash habits as well as ideas about garbage as a resource. The exhibits run through Aug. 31, and the opening reception is 6 to 9 p.m.