Landfill closures highlight need for trash conversion
by Irwin Rapoport
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
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
“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
“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
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
“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
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
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
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
“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.”