By Pat Proano, Assistant Deputy Director, County of Los Angeles Department of Public Works
Californians have always been at the forefront of sustainability.
There is no better demonstration of this leadership than here in the County of Los Angeles, where we continue to be recognized with awards for excellence and achievement in the development and restoration of sustainable multi-use eco-systems and capital projects that consistently earn Leadership in Energy and Environmental design (LEED) certification.
We have also become master recyclers and maintain some of the highest recycling rates in the U.S. 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 technology - also known as waste to energy - offers the answer for handling that small percentage of materials that just cannot be recycled.
Put simply, CTs are facilities that convert trash into electricity or biofuels, as well as other useful byproducts. These technologies have been embraced by governments and citizens around the globe, and countries such as Japan, Israel and Spain have relied on them for countless years for the management of municipal waste. Not only would we generate new green collar jobs by constructing these facilities locally, but we would be creating a less environmentally impactful system with increased recycling rates and reduced air emissions.
Seven years ago, the LA County Board of Supervisors saw the need to establish a more sustainable waste management system that reduces our reliance on landfills. Coupled with the imminent closure of Puente Hills Landfill, the country’s largest landfill, and the escalating price of shipping waste to remote parts of California by rail, alternatives had to be found. The Board approved a multi-phased program aimed at promoting the development of sophisticated new CT facilities in the region.
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 will continue to put trash in the ground—the least desirable option for all Californians.
While we’ve been waiting for a legislative fix, municipalities continue to be left with the same outdated methods for managing waste in our communities. What does that look like? Since the year 2000, Californians have thrown away approximately half a billion tons of trash.
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.
Recently, the Los Angeles County 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 CT facilities in the state.
And Sacramento itself seems to recognize the role conversion technologies can play in the management of 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 permit pathway for CTs. Also, in August, 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.
We are enthusiastic about the opportunity to put these technologies into practice locally and throughout the state. We must continue working in good faith with those in Sacramento and statewide to ensure that the benefits of conversion technologies are available to all Californians.
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 most recently been at the forefront of the County’s efforts at integrating Conversion Technologies into the municipal waste system.