By David Wolman
From the highway, one of the biggest landfills in the US doesn’t look at all like a dump. It’s more like a misplaced mesa. Only when you drive closer to the center of operations at the 700-acre Columbia Ridge Landfill in Arlington, Oregon, does the function of this place become clear. Some 35,000 tons of mostly household trash arrive here weekly by train from Seattle and by truck from Portland.
Dump trucks inch up the gravel road to the top of the heap, where they tip their cargo of dirty diapers, discarded furniture, lemon rinds, spent lightbulbs, Styrofoam peanuts, and all the rest onto a carefully flattened blanket of dirt. At night, more dump trucks spread another layer of dirt over the day’s deposits, preventing trash from escaping on the breeze.
But as of November, not all the trash arriving at Columbia Ridge has ended up buried. On the southwest side of the landfill, bus-sized containers of gas connect to ribbons of piping, which run into a building that looks like an airplane hangar with a loading dock. Here, dump trucks also offload refuse. This trash, however, is destined for a special kind of treatment—one that could redefine how we think about trash.
In an era when it’s getting more and more confusing to determine where to toss your paper coffee cup—compost? recycle? trash? arrrgh!—and when no one seems to have a viable solution to the problem of humanity’s ever-expanding rubbish pile, this plant represents a step toward radical simplification. It uses plasma gasification, a technology that turns trash into a fuel without producing emissions. In other words: a guilt-free solution to our waste problems.
Recycling is all well and good. But it hardly addresses the real problem we have with our household waste: We throw two-thirds of it in landfills while somehow managing to feel virtuous that we put last night’s empty wine bottle in the recycling bin. Surely we could do better, environmentally and economically.
There is, in fact, value in trash—if you can unlock it. That’s what this facility in northern Oregon is designed to do. Run by a startup called S4 Energy Solutions, it’s the first commercial plant in the US to use plasma gasification to convert municipal household garbage into gas products like hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which can in turn be burned as fuel or sold to industry for other applications. (Hydrogen, for example, is used to make ammonia and fertilizers.)
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