Friday, January 29, 2016

Portland and Future Waste Policies

Landfill management and waste disposal isn’t a topic that receives a lot of public or political attention. Big piles of waste aren’t attractive to talk about, and we pay money for this material to be moved far away from our urban area (and for good reason, landfills are naturally stinky). And while Portland’s superb recycling programs are helpful, the Metro recently reported at least a million tons of garbage is still being produced and sent to landfills from the Portland area. The recent rising trend in Portland’s population means of course, more waste, and Portland’s current waste removal contracts are set to expire in 2019. This could be an opportunity to improve and innovate Portland’s waste management, a chance to explore new options for waste management and diversify our waste management resources. This opportunity brings up potential for Portland to improve its already reputable status as an environmentally friendly city that works.

The city currently seems to be focusing on the option of incineration as a process of energy conversion. This would take place in a currently existing plant just north of Salem (Portland Tribune's coverage here). While I’m not completely opposed to the theoretical idea of waste to energy, I wonder if Portland could do better in exploring more options. Proponents of waste-to-energy incineration frequently cite Europe as a model, but Europe is both limited in options because of land scarcity. Also, European plants frequently use new, cleaner technologies that don’t produce the ash pollutant associated with traditional incineration plants. What the current proposals (and the lack of diversity in potential options) suggests to me is a shortcoming in environmental policy that, when enacted in long-term private contracts, can lock the city’s waste-management policy into an inefficient strategy for business reasons and hence failing to take advantage of potential innovations and more diverse mechanisms for dealing in the market of waste management. Learning from other cities innovations and keeping flexibility and open options in land management would be helpful, and allow waste management to adapt to current trends and needs of a rising population.

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