Trash Disposal in Corvallis 40 Years Out: Not Your Problem? Actually, It Is

Forty years may be a long ways away, but it’ll arrive soon enough. And when it does, Coffin Butte Landfill will most likely have reached maximum capacity. What happens to our waste then? At this point, it’s too early to tell.

“We don’t have a solid plan in place,” said Mary Steckel, director of the City of Corvallis Public Works Department.

However, the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition does have a goal—not for the landfill, but for the community. The Coalition envisions a future in which Corvallis residents and businesses produce zero solid waste.

“The goal that we would be trying to achieve is not looking for a landfill solution, but focusing our efforts on how to reduce the amount of waste we’re taking to the landfill,” explained Steckel. “The less waste we take to the landfill, the longer the life of the landfill.”

Although it has no blueprint for City actions, Public Works is onboard with the Coalition’s overall vision for Corvallis: to become a waste-free community by 2030, with a 50-percent reduction by 2020. By next year, 2014, the goal is a reduction by 25 percent of landfill waste—a goal that would be achievable in part by greater recycling.

“It’s something that we would work on in the next 20 years,” said Steckel.


What Are Our Options?

If Corvallis can’t achieve zero-waste, what are our other options? Looking at other cities within Oregon gives us some ideas for alternatives.

Tom Chaimov, Solid Waste Planner at Metro in Portland, explains that much of Portland’s waste is consolidated locally and then shipped out to landfills, with a small amount going to Salem’s incineration facility. Some of Portland’s trash makes it out East—and some even ends up in Corvallis’ Coffin Butte Landfill.

Chaimov echoes Steckel’s vision for the future, one in which waste is not generated in the first place.

“I think that is everyone’s primary driver, to reduce it,” he said. “The State has the whole waste reduction hierarchy written into state law: reduce, reuse, recycle.”

The order is important: It’s preferable to reduce waste overall, but if possible to reuse an item, and finally to recycle it. A good example (from the Department of Environmental Quality) is drinking water: It’s best to reduce waste entirely by drinking from the tap; second-best to reuse water bottles; and a final option is to recycle the bottle. Only items that can’t be reduced, reused, or recycled should end up in a landfill.

“It’s hard to know what the best disposal solution will be 50 years from now,” Chaimov commented. “I think each community will have its own perspective on what the best solution for the community is; Corvallis may have a slightly different take on it than the City of Portland.”

Waste-to-energy facilities will also become more prevalent, Chaimov believes. In Portland, the company Columbia Biogas breaks ground this year on a new facility that uses anaerobic digestion to convert food waste to energy.

“You ferment that waste in a controlled way and extract methane from it and use it for fuel or to turn turbines,” explained Chaimov. “You see some of that in Europe being used pretty effectively.”

Coffin Butte, too, generates electricity from methane. Its 300 methane gas wells produce enough electricity to power 4,000 homes. A similar facility, the JC-Biomethane anaerobic digester, can be found near Junction City. Finally, Chaimov mentioned plasma gasification, a new technology that uses extremely high temperatures to turn trash into gas. A pilot plant is running at a landfill near Arlington.

“That takes a tremendous amount of energy to vaporize the garbage,” noted Chaimov. “It may be awhile before that technology is ripe for commercial use.”

Julie Jackson of Republic Services in Corvallis (which is responsible for Coffin Butte Landfill an additional 30 years after it closes) pointed out that landfills may be mined for their resources in the future. Because current landfills remove as much moisture and air as possible to compact the garbage, materials do not tend to decompose.

“Who knows if we’ll be putting more into the landfill in 50 years or taking it out,” she said. “Even paper could be recovered in the near-future.”

Depending on how much trash is produced, it’s possible that the estimate of 40 years until Coffin Butte fills could be very conservative. Jackson estimated that 30 to 40 percent of what goes into landfills in the U.S. is compostable: food, cotton fabric, and other organic materials. Coffin Butte was the first facility in Oregon to collect compost waste; it began in 2009.

Gordon Brown, a staff person for the Corvallis Solid Waste Advisory Commission, agrees that recovery of materials will probably take greater precedence over landfills in the future.

“Landfill space isn’t the issue,” he said. “I think it will come down to managing those resources and maybe going back to mining landfills.”

However, if people still produce the same amount of waste 40 years from now, landfills will continue to be the go-to solution.

“Let’s say things stay the same and the landfill closes 40 years from now—then we’d probably be looking at shipping our waste to another disposal site,” he said.

Whatever we end up doing—shipping it to eastern Oregon, incinerating it, or plasma gasification—there’s no doubt that the most environmentally friendly solution is to not produce the waste in the first place. But is that a realistic option? We’ll know in 50 years.


The Salem Incinerator

“It’s a garbage-powered power plant, essentially,” said Jeff Bickford, environmental services division manager at Marion County Public Works. A waste-to-energy facility in Marion County, Salem’s incinerator (located in Brooks just off I-5) processes about 550 tons of trash each day. Run by Covanta of Marion, Inc., two huge boilers burn trash at temperatures up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. The walls of the boilers are filled with tubes of water, which turns to steam. This steam drives turbines, creating enough electricity to power a city the size of Woodburn (about 13 megawatts annually) and providing a little over $5 million to the county annually in electricity sales. About 90 percent of Marion County’s garbage ends up in the incinerator.

The waste products from the incinerator include ash. Large magnets pluck metals from the ash for recycling (about 3,356 tons last year). Most of the ash ends up at a specialty landfill in Woodburn; some ends up at Coffin Butte, where it’s used as cover for the landfill.

“We’re displacing their need to go out and get other dirt and mine hillsides,” noted Bickford. “It’s good for them and it’s good for us.”

Incinerators are not known for their cleanliness, but the technology is improving to match tighter standards. Air pollution control systems called scrubbers neutralize any acid gases; activated carbon injected into the hot air traps larger particulates and heavy metals. Another device called a baghouse traps fine particulate, working like a giant vacuum cleaner bag. Everything ends up in the ash, which sets up like concrete. According to Bickford, this means the heavy metals tend to stay in one place, while the main water quality concern is saltiness from the broken organic materials in the initial trash.

“It’s one of the more heavily regulated and monitored facilities; they have a great environmental record,” he said. “The EPA did a study looking at backyard burn barrels; their conclusion was two homes burning their garbage in a burn barrel in a year would release more dioxin than a facility our size, which burns 190,000 tons in a year. The pollution controls on these are brutally good now.”

To view the Action Plan of the Corvallis Sustainability Coalition, visit To view the Department of Environmental Quality’s vision for 2050, visit


A First-World Problem

Could the United States ever reach a point where it needs more trash than is available to power its incinerators? Sweden is way ahead of us on this one. Its waste-incineration program is so successful—and its citizens so mindful—that the country doesn’t produce enough waste to keep its incineration power plants going. As a result, the country has started importing waste from other countries—buying their trash—as a way to generate power. Let’s see if the United States can reach Sweden’s current level of efficiency and have to deal with this “problem” in 50 years!

by Jen Matteis

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