Does anything symbolize our ravenous consumer culture more than millions of tons of planned-obsolescence electronics and styrofoam kid’s toys and disposable diapers all piled atop themselves, rotting away for the next few million years?
Modern landfills aren’t your old-fashioned “town dumps.” Well, they were, once, but now that there are 314 million Americans, with the average American producing over four pounds of trash per day, those quaint, Norman Rockwell-like town dumps have metastasized into vast, industrially-managed mountains of trash.
Coffin Butte landfill, just north of Corvallis, is a perfect example of this—from its humble beginnings as a disposal site for the Camp Adair military facility in the mid 1940s it’s now the second largest landfill in Oregon, housing garbage from twelve counties, accumulating approximately 550,000 tons of trash a year.
The bad thing about landfills, besides how they symbolize not just waste but wastefulness, is that, if not managed properly, they’re extremely environmentally destructive: rainwater trickling through them picks up contaminants and leaches them into the groundwater; the vast amount of rotting material releases prodigious quantities of methane—the most potent greenhouse gas. They’re also breeding grounds for vermin and who-knows-what else.
But Coffin Butte differs from the stereotypical landfill. Coffin Butte, owned by Republic Services is, as landfills go, a great landfill. It’s safe to say that it may be the pinnacle of landfilldom.
For one, the entire landfill is lined with a geosynthetic clay liner, which keeps the contaminated rainwater (the “leachate”) from percolating into the groundwater. Instead, all leachate is captured and pumped into a 4-million gallon settling pond, which is covered with a removable, inflated geomembrane to ward off millions of gallons of Oregon rain. By the time it’s pumped through a direct-osmosis treatment plant and a concentrate-solidification plant, the toxic liquid is water, clean enough to drink. But since it’s not cost effective to ship it anywhere, they simply release it into the wetlands of an adjacent waterfowl refuge. (For those suspicious of coming across mutant ducks, the water is tested three times before it leaves the landfill property.)
Even better is the way Coffin Butte, in this case the Coffin Butte Resource Project, disposes of its methane. Most landfills flare the potent gas, but Coffin Butte harvests the methane and uses it to power three 16-cylinder and two 20-cylinder Caterpillar engines. These generators have the capacity to produce 5.66 megawatts of power—enough electricity to serve an estimated 4,000 average-size homes. The Coffin Butte Resource Project sells the power to a dozen local electric cooperatives, who offer it to customers as “green power.” As trumpeted by PNGC Power, which “provides operational and management expertise” to Coffin Butte, landfill gas is a great, consistent source of renewable energy, producing energy 97 percent of the time, while wind only produces energy 30 to 35 percent of the time.
So, landfill or not, there aren’t two ways about it: turning rot-gas into electricity and toxic liquid into clean water for wildlife-refuges is a good thing. It’s a very good thing that other landfills and utilities may develop similar gas-to-energy plants. It’s almost enough to give one hope that we’ll be able to invent similar technologies to solve—even capitalize on—all our looming environmental problems.
But on the other hand, a landfill shouldn’t necessarily be lauded because they properly dispose of their highly hazardous outputs. Yes, it’s a good thing they are no longer disposing their leachate through “agronomic irrigation onto hay fields,” as they were up until 1998, but one would expect that in 2012 there’s environmental safeguards. After all, it’s the Environmental Protection Agency that stipulates that methane must be captured, and Coffin Butte Resource Project receives hefty tax credits for converting methane to electricity.
But what’s really shifty is that “biomass materials” can be touted as such a “clean renewable resource.” Yes, landfills are necessary evils; and yes, our expanding population (another 125 million Americans projected by 2050) ensures a growing influx of garbage and landfill gas, but there’s something off-putting about the patting-ourselves on the back for “clean” energy derived from our decidedly unclean habits of consumption; just as it’s ridiculous to promote “sustainability” derived from un-sustainable patterns of consumption and waste.
Coffin Butte Resource Project is a great thing, but it shouldn’t make us feel better about our wasteful habits. It’s a solution to only part of the problem. The real solution is, as always, our own personal habits.