Californians have always been at the forefront of sustainability.
Our cities and counties, including the County of Los Angeles, continue to be recognized for excellence and achievement in the restoration of multi-use ecosystems and the development of sustainable capital projects that consistently earn Leadership in Energy and Environmental design (LEED) certification.
We have become master recyclers and maintain some of the highest recycling rates in the nation. In Los Angeles alone, we recycle nearly two thirds of our trash. But despite this success, we are now at a critical juncture in how to sustainably manage our waste.
Conversion technologies offer the answer for handling those materials that just cannot be recycled.
Conversion technologies can convert trash into renewable energy or biofuels as well as other useful byproducts. These technologies have been embraced by governments and citizens around the globe. Countries such as Japan, Israel and Spain have relied on them for many years for the management of municipal waste because they can increase recycling rates and reduce air emissions.
Development of these technologies in California would help spur a new and innovative industry producing clean energy and products from waste materials we would otherwise send to landfills. It would also generate new skilled, green collar jobs and support our local economies. Instead of exporting trash, jobs, and financial resources, California can build local, sustainable ecosystems.
Given Los Angeles County’s limited potential for developing new in-county landfills, the Board of Supervisors foresaw the need to implement a comprehensive, integrated, and sustainable strategy to manage its solid waste. This strategy placed high priority on maximizing waste reduction and recycling as well as developing alternatives to landfilling such as conversion technologies. The Board subsequently approved a multi-phased program aimed at promoting the development of advanced conversion technology facilities in the region. The imminent closure of Puente Hills Landfill later this year further heightens the urgency of this task — our success is critical in ensuring Los Angeles County residents’ health and safety and the environment are protected.
[pagebreak]However, state regulations have not kept pace with these local efforts, and have in fact hindered development of conversion technologies. Current definitions are confusing and in some cases, scientifically inaccurate, making it difficult for them to be permitted in this state.
If we cannot develop these facilities, we may be compelled to continue to put trash in the ground — a less desirable option for Californians. Since 2000, approximately half a billion tons of California trash has been sent to landfills. In other words, even after reducing, reusing and recycling over half of the waste we generated, over the last decade we threw away enough trash to fill the renowned Pasadena Rose Bowl nearly 2,000 times over.
Californians reasonably ask, “Why do we continue to bury our trash? With all the advanced technology we have, why can’t we turn this trash into something useful, such as clean fuels? There must be a better way!”
Yes, there is a better way. Last year, the County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors took a major step forward in developing conversion technologies in California with its unanimous approval of a motion calling on Sacramento to modernize outdated regulations and develop a friendlier attitude to the development of conversion technology facilities in the state. As a result, the County’s legislative advocates are working to sponsor conversion technology legislation this year.
And Sacramento itself seems to recognize the role conversion technologies can play in the management of solid waste.
California Governor Jerry Brown’s office recently expressed its support for establishing a “technology neutral, feedstock-based performance standard” to replace the current unscientific definition written into state law and establish a clearer permitting pathway for new conversion technologies. Also, in August 2012 the Governor adopted a comprehensive BioEnergy Action Plan, collaboratively written by nearly a dozen state environmental and regulatory agencies, that calls for accelerating the production of renewable energy and clean burning fuels from solid waste and other biomass sources in the State.
Let’s find a way forward by developing modern definitions. Let’s work from a factually correct understanding of conversion technologies and a clear-eyed assessment of their importance in a modern, efficient system. Only by working together can we create the most sustainable waste system that respects the environment and economy for all Californians.
Pat Proano is an Assistant Deputy Director at the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Works, overseeing the Department’s Environmental Programs Division. A 30-year veteran of Los Angeles County, Proano has been leading the County’s efforts to integrate Conversion Technologies into the municipal waste system.
Photo courtesy of flickr user Cyclyst.