January 20, 2007

Southern California Emerging Waste Technologies Forum

On July 27, 2006, the UCLA Hydrogen Energy Research Consortium played host to roughly 250 area “stakeholders” at The Southern California Emerging Waste Technologies Forum. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, State Senator Richard Alarcon, Assemblywoman Cindy Montanez, Councilman Greig Smith, and the City and County agencies responsible for public works and sanitation were among the sponsors. The list of speakers, their bios, and most of their presentations are available online along with the forum's agenda.

The purpose of the meeting was to provide Southern California waste and energy stakeholders the opportunity to learn about Conversion Technologies (CTs) and their potential for helping the state cope with its growing waste disposal problem in light of dwindling landfill alternatives. Also discussed was the potential of capturing the energy content of the waste material to help allay California’s gas import, ethanol import, electricity production, budgetary, employment and pollution problems.

The centerpiece of the forum is the Los Angeles City Council’s ambitious and well-researched RENEW L.A. program, a 20-year plan to divert waste from the county’s numerous landfills to biorefineries. These clean facilities convert roughly 80% of the unrecyclable trash to energy (most likely ethanol) and electricity, drastically reduce greenhouse gases from landfills and waste transport, create skilled "green collar" jobs throughout the city, while they enhance environmental justice in Los Angeles County. The plan was passed unanimously in March of this year and has earned the support of the Mayor's office. Furthermore, it is fully in compliance with the Governor's recently signed BioEnergy Action Plan.

The current obstacle to implementation is state legislature (specifically the Assembly Natural Resources Committee and the Senate Environmental Quality Committee) where for two years proponents have been unable to get action on even the simplest of changes in statute to correct scientifically inaccurate definitions that govern the permitting of these technologies.

The afternoon session was organized around a lively panel discussion of the 5 issues deemed crucial to implementation of CTs in California: What is the best way to achieve zero waste? Can emissions from landfills and CTs be mitigated? How can environmental justice best be achieved? What is the economic viability of CTs? What role do CTs play in energy sustainability?

For approximately 3/4 of the panelists and a sizeable majority of the audience, the need and viability of CTs is not questioned. The status quo of processing and trucking a growing volume of waste to fewer landfills at greater distances mandates that existing CTs be evaluated and deployed in carefully monitored stages to implement the timetable of the RENEW LA plan. Through the cooperation of government, universities, and industry, any problems that occur during deployment can be resolved, but at no time will existing recycling programs be reduced or regional emissions statutes be violated. Indeed, recycling will enhanced dramatically and existing emissions data demonstrates that CTs will provide significant improvement in the reduction of toxins and greenhouse gases.

Among those opposing implementation of CTs was Californians Against Waste (CAW). CAW has been actively involved in the development, negotiation and passage of waste reduction and recycling legislation in California. However, CAW strongly believes there is no basis for counting CTs as recycling at this time and that CTs will, through success, gradually reduce recycling efforts in the state.

Other environmental groups, none of which have expressed any interest in learning about the environmental advances of 21 Century CT technologies, attempted to promote skepticism about the emissions impact of CTs on the health in local communities - objective UC/CE-CERT measurement of emissions data notwithstanding.

The only alternative to CTs offered by its opposition was "source reduction" - reducing the amount of products going to waste by simultaneously educating the public on more efficient waste reduction practices and enforcing new legislation and enforcement policies - requiring manufacturers to redesign their packaging to eliminate waste or take responsibility for the waste disposal of products they sell.

My opinion

1 - The rate at which recycling can increase by source reduction alone is not likely to exceed the amount of additional waste entering the system. Meanwhile, RENEW L.A. is moving forward so that, within 20 years, L.A. will no longer be dependent on landfills for waste disposal. Without the permitting and deployment of CTs, waste disposal in California will become increasingly expensive and environmentally dangerous.

2 - CTs represent a true opportunity to not only expand recycling through mass reduction and conversion into useful products (like electricity, ethanol, and "green" chemicals) but also help California meet its bioenergy goals in the Governors BioEnergy Action Plan.

3 - AB 2118 should be negotiated in good faith with the BioEnergy Producers Association input, and passed immediately so that the investment, R&D and deployment permitting of clean CTs in California can proceed apace.

4 - Only through deployment will the final processes be refined and required emissions data be collected. All parties can be assured that through constant monitoring, new facilities will meet every emissions requirement or they will be shut down until they do.

5 - California is a "can do" state that needs to take advantage of new opportunities to right its own budgetary ship and solve its landfill, waste, employment, electricity, pollution, and renewable fuels problems. Conversion Technologies will help achieve those goals.

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