When Trash is Anything But Waste

In the 1970s, California faced growing concerns about the supply and cost of energy, in addition to worries about running out of landfill space. The idea of burning trash -- cleanly -- to generate electricity seemed like a great idea. That's according to Jonathan Iorga, the longtime plant engineer at the Commerce, California refuse-to-energy facility.

The Commerce plant was built as a pilot project in the 1980s. It burns trash, and carefully filters out any toxic fumes, to produce electricity for thousands of homes in the area. The byproduct is compacted in concrete-like blocks of compressed ash, which is actually carted off to landfills and crushed to create roads there.

A chart of the Commerce facility, courtesy of the Los Angeles County Department of Sanitation. (Click to see a larger version)



So it's close to a zero-waste operation. It was expected that the technology would spread around the state, or even the nation. Iorga says officials from all around the world toured the plant, then adopted and honed the technology at home. But in California and the U.S., that didn't happen. Instead, energy markets stabilized, prices went down, and new, larger landfills were opened.

University of Virgina professor Vivian Thomson has written about the story of transporting trash in her book "Garbage In, Garbage Out: Solving the
Problems with Long-Distance Trash Transport."

She says other nations have come to see trash as energy. Places like Japan and Germany have also adopted something called the "proximity principle," a philosophy that says the communities that produce trash should handle their waste as close to home as possible, instead of sloughing off the problem to poorer, further flung places.

Thomson provided these photos of waste-to-energy plants in Japan, which are mixed in with other residential and business developments, instead of the "out-of-sight, out-of-mind" locations of most U.S. waste management facilities.

Two waste-to-energy burners in Tokyo, Japan. Photos courtesy of Dr. Itaru Okuda.



Los Angeles City Council member Greig Smith has been on a crusade for years to get the city, county and state to consider more waste-to-energy plants. He toured sites around the world and saw the "proximity principle" in action, including plants that heat pools, provide energy for nursing homes, or sit next to other local businesses.

Another Japanese power plant fueled by trash, part of Los Angeles City Council member Greig Smith's world tour of waste-to-energy. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles City Council.


Biodigesters made by the French company Valorga turn trash into a rich compost. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles City Council.



Of course, getting the money to build these types of cutting edge plants will be tough in a state facing a budget crisis. The cost per ton to process trash this way is about double the current cost of hauling it to a landfill.

But, Smith says, there is a net carbon savings, which could be of value of helping the state reduce its emissions. Not to mention the increased cost of the current plan for L.A. country trash -- hauling it by rail to a more remote facility close to the border with Mexico. Smith also says the electricity created will, over time, balance out the up-front cost of building the facilities.

Scott Smithline of Californians Against Waste is leery of adpoting this technology, though. His group says California should focus on getting consumers and industry to reduce their waste and recycle more of it.

He says that telling the public the solution is to turn trash into electricity doesn't provide an impetus to decrease the gross amount of trash being produced.

Councilmember Smith says California already recycles more than any state in the nation, and even in a down economy, it's trash levels are expected to increase in coming years enough to make waste-to-energy a needed approach.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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