Landfill closures highlight need for trash conversion

The 2013 planned closure of the Puente Hills Landfill, the primary landfill in Los Angeles County (LAC), has created the catalyst for county officials to deal with the 80,000 tons of waste that is generated on a daily basis.

While 50 percent of the material is diverted through recycling and other programs, the majority of the remainder (called residual waste) is sent to be landfilled.

The problem of how to partially deal with that waste was given to the Alternative Technology Advisory Subcommittee (ATAS), which falls within the jurisdiction of the County Integrated Waste Management Task Force.

The result of this process has been the selection of four conversion technologies to process the solid waste to generate electricity, gases, chemicals and other products that have a market value. The processes mainly involve pyrolysis, gasification and methane generation.

The plan is to establish demonstration projects at up to three recycling centers; with the likelihood that more than one project will be recommended.

This month the LAC Board of Supervisors (five voting members) is expected to vote on a resolution that will likely contain two major clauses that will move the project forward.

“The first is a recommendation regarding the specific proposals – agreements that are now being finalized with each of the partners – to establish the demonstration projects,” said Coby Skye, a civil engineer with the County Department of Public Works, who is lead staff for ATAS. “The second recommendation will be to approve a contract with an environmental consultant. That item would provide us with additional resources to provide support needed to make these projects successful.

“If the board approves both recommendations, the next step would be in developing the projects, beginning with the permitting and design process,” he added, noting that “a lot of design work has already begun just developing the proposals themselves. Therefore the approval would be for the final design permitting and construction so that we could begin to operate.”

Public Works has already vetted the recycling centers and all four technologies can be located at any of the centers.

“They are very different technologies and there is not one silver bullet technology that works in all situations,” said Skye. “The intent is to prove the systems in a scale that is close to commercial. It will then be an easy jump to prove the financial viability of the projects as well. Landfill tipping fees are still relatively inexpensive and at the same time, the incentives are not really there – it is very difficult to develop these projects because there is a lot of regulatory uncertainty.”

The process to develop the projects, he added, requires that they are:

•Environmentally feasible and meet all of the most extensive environmental standards as outlined by the state and the South Coast Air Quality Management District.

•Technically feasible, while meeting diversion targets and operating on a continuous basis at a near commercial scale using local waste.

•Financially viable by being able to turn a profit, which will hopefully send a signal to investors in LAC and southern California that investing in these projects is sound.

Skye notes that conversion technologies are being successfully utilized in Europe and around the world.

Paul Alva, chair of the ATAS and a senior civil engineer with Public Works, noted that due to the ongoing economic crisis, the amount of residual solid waste that has to be disposed of has dropped to about 32,000 tons per day.

“But that is very much a temporary issue,” he said. “When the economy turns around and as the population continues to increase, we are going to see that number go up again. At the same time, we are hoping to have some of the alternatives developed and start to maintain that number at a lower level.

“If we are successful,” he added, “we will see conversion technologies starting to start making a significant dent in that number within a decade.”

“Landfills should be the last resort,” said Skye. “They are very important right now because they are critical to protect the public’s health and safety. We look at places like Naples, Italy where they haven’t had effective waste management for a number of years, and see how important sanitation is. This is a real issue, but at the same time, if there are great opportunities to do something better with our waste and generate significant environmental and economic benefits, we want to do that to the extent we can.”

The closure of Puente Hills is being recognized by cities large and small, within and outside of LAC. This has led to many municipalities from San Diego to Sacramento taking an interest in conversion technologies, with some beginning the process of determining which technologies are available and others seeking proposals for full-scale processing plants.

The information garnered by ATAS has been the source for many of these municipalities.

“We’re excited about that because our hope and intent was to develop conversion technologies that can address this issue regionally, while serving as a model for other municipalities,” said Skye.

“A regional solution is essential because disposing of trash is becoming harder and will be so in the future.

“LAC’s Sanitation district is developing a waste-by-rail project just to handle some of the capacity that we would be lost with the closing of Puente Hills. Their projections show disposal tonnages going from $30 per ton right now all the way to $70 to $75 per ton in less than a decade. It is going to have a dramatic impact on the rates charged by other area landfills.

According to Alva, “Most likely, transportation costs for disposal are going to increase again, and energy costs are also likely to increase, so we definitely see that conversion technologies are going to be cost competitive in the next 5 to 10 years. This is not accounting for climate change legislation that may create additional incentives for conversion technologies, which would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

LAC would like to see a situation where most of the solid waste does not leave the county and that instead of paying to ship it away, it is sent to local conversion centers, where it can generate tax revenue or host fees via partnerships with the companies involved.

Several municipalities in LAC have passed unanimous resolutions supporting the conversion technology project.

Alva said that once the demonstration projects are up and running successfully, establishing regional conversion centers in the county should be an easier task, as should the matching of collection routes to these centers.

“There has been a lot of discussion about large wind and solar projects to generate renewable energy from remote locations using hundreds or thousands of acres,” he said. “We can, in a 5 to 10 acre site, build a full-scale commercial project that can generate 30 to 40 megawatts of energy net to the grid and do that locally without needing large transmission lines to do it, in a way that also solves other environmental issues and manages the waste stream.”

Skye is pleased with legislation – both at the state (AB 222, California) and Federal (HR 2454, climate change and others) levels – that advances biorefineries and waste to energy production.

“These bills finally acknowledge that its best to recover energy from our waste materials, rather that landfilling them,” he said. “The bills will create a platform to generate renewable energy and provide that regulatory certainty. Even without a financial incentive, it provides a signal to the market place to invest. You may also see a premium for the electricity that is generated from these projects. This would help to make them more financially viable in the short-term rather than in the long-term, when we really run out of landfill space.”

AB 222, he explains, “has advanced further than any previous attempts. It would essentially provide a level playing field and regulatory certainty for conversion technologies.”

The State Assembly passed the bill, as did the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee, and it is now before the Senate Environmental Quality Committee.

“It is critical legislation and it creates a strong incentive for ‘recycling first’ before any waste stream is sent to a conversion facility,” said Skye. “It requires that all recyclables are pulled out and processed prior to conversion. That is a philosophy that we strongly agree with.

“We have invested a lot in our recycling infrastructure and we want to maintain and enhance that,” he added. “In countries that have conversion technologies they actually see an increase in recycling. I urge people to write a letter supporting passage of AB 222. It diversifies our solid waste infrastructure, conserves our natural resources, and creates highly paid green collar jobs.”