In a hot warehouse on Terminal Island, a crane operator uses a giant claw to scoop mounds of trash.

The garbage is fed into a chute and then rammed into a boiler where it’s burned at temperatures upwards of 1,500 degrees. The heat generates steam that’s turned into electricity—enough to power 35,000 homes each year.

Tackling Long Beach’s trash is no small feat. The average resident tosses out 4 pounds of garbage each day and around 1,400 pounds a year, according to city estimates. In all, Long Beach generates 368,000 tons annually, roughly the weight of 2,500 large whales.

While most cities send their trash to landfills, Long Beach for the past three decades has used a less common method: Incineration.

Since 1988, the city’s Southeast Resource Recovery Facility (SERRF), known as a “waste-to-energy” plant, has burned the bulk of Long Beach’s trash that isn’t recycled. The facility in the Port of Long Beach processes about 1,300 tons of trash each day, producing energy power that’s sold to electric companies.

The waste-to-energy plant is one of just two in California (the other is in Stanislaus County) and one of more than 70 across the country (most are on the East Coast).

City leaders have long touted SERRF as a gem that has generated millions of dollars through energy sales and has reduced the amount of trash in landfills. But as California and Long Beach move toward a “zero waste” plan, the future of SERRF is uncertain.

Crane Operator Valentino Spaleta picks up the trash to place it in the hopper at the Southeast Resource Recovery Facility in Long Beach Friday, May 31, 2019. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

Faced with an aging infrastructure, the plant would need about $60 million in upgrades to keep it running through the next 20 years, said Charlie Tripp, manager of the Electric Generation Bureau. It also has seen significant drops in energy sales this year, leaving its financial future in jeopardy.

Long Beach has extended its contract to run SERRF through 2024, but after that, city leaders will have to decide if they want to invest in costly upgrades for the 30-year-old facility or invest in newer, greener practices.

“We’re having conversations about what SERRF will look like in the future,” Tripp said. “Past 2024, it’s an unknown for us right now.”

A controversial method

Waste-to-energy plants have long been popular in Europe, especially in Sweden, where the energy is used to heat homes. 

Tripp said the technology has never caught on in the United States because we still have space for landfills, which are cheaper. There’s also the pushback from communities and environmental groups who contend the practice discourages waste reduction and recycling and isn’t a clean energy source.

A study released last month by the Tishman Environment and Design Center at The New School in New York City found that 80% of the country’s incinerators are found in low-income communities, which are disproportionately exposed to environmental toxins.

Adrienne Perovich, one of the study’s authors, said the SERRF facility is exacerbating the public health risks for Long Beach residents who are also exposed to emissions from the ports and freeways.

“These vulnerable communities in Long Beach have a legacy of being dumped on,” she said. “They’re poster children for environmental racism.”

Trash burns in the furnace which produces electricity at the Southeast Resource Recovery Facility in Long Beach Friday, May 31, 2019. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, incinerators release dioxins (a group chemical compounds known to cause cancer) but the quantity has been reduced by more than 90% since 1987 levels through new technology and stricter air quality regulations.

The facilities cause less air pollution than coal plants, but slightly more than natural gas, according to the EPA.

However, landfills have their own problems. Waste-to-energy advocates note that trash diverted to boilers results in a significant reduction of methane emissions from organic waste in landfills.

Perovich said neither option is a good solution for the planet.

“It’s not just a matter of picking the worst of two evils, what we really should be doing is looking at a broad range of options,” she said.

A future in Long Beach?

Waste-to energy has its share of opponents, but in Long Beach, leaders say it’s largely been a positive. Over the years, officials said, the SERRF facility has kept trash prices down, filled city coffers with millions in revenue and reduced greenhouse gas emissions from truck fleets that otherwise would ship trash to faraway landfills.

SERRF also destroys an average of 45,000 pounds of drugs confiscated by law enforcement each month. Tripp said the ash byproduct from incineration is mixed with cement to trap heavy metals and is then used as road base for local landfills.

He said the facility is subject to inspections form the South Coast Air Quality Management District and falls within California emission standards.

While SERRF does get revenue from tipping fees it charges to other cities that use the facility, its biggest source of revenue up until this year came from energy sales to Southern California Edison. Tripp said SERRF generated about $24 million a year in sales to Edison before the power giant ended its contract last year. Energy companies can find much cheaper power sources, like wind and solar, elsewhere.

Tripp said SERRF has a new contract with California ISO, but the facility only hopes to get a third of the revenue it once received from Edison.

A turbine and generator which produces electricity at the Southeast Resource Recovery Facility in Long Beach Friday, May 31, 2019. Photo by Thomas R. Cordova.

SERRF isn’t the only facility that’s struggling. The state’s third incinerator in Commerce closed last year due to financial problems.

Tripp said the Long Beach plant over the years has taken trash from other cities to replace losses from recycling. But now, the state is seeing an influx of plastics due to China’s ban on trash imports from the U.S. This year, the facility has seen a 5% increase in plastics being burned, Tripp said.

“The future is zero waste, but we need a bridge to get there,” he said. “It’s not gonna happen tomorrow.”

In December, the Long Beach City Council approved $8 million in upgrades to keep SERRF running through 2024. Mayor Robert Garcia in that meeting said city officials are having “robust conversations” with leaders in Sacramento about the future of SERRF and how it fits with the city’s zero waste plans.

Assemblyman Patrick O’Donnell, D-Long Beach, who sponsored a bill that would have classified waste-to-energy plants as a form of renewable energy, said he believes SERRF has a role in Long Beach’s future. The bill, AB 655, failed last year.

“I see it as having a role if we can address the environmental impacts and the fiscal challenges moving forward,” he said.

West Long Beach resident Whitney Amaya hopes to see a future without trash incinerators.

Amaya, who works for the East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, said people in her neighborhood are forced to live in a perfect storm of pollution with the twin ports, the 710 Freeway, industrial refineries and SERRF. The facility isn’t a green solution, she said.

“We need to find a better solution for the sake of our communities,” she said. “I want to stay here. I want to raise a family here. But I don’t want my children to have trouble breathing.”

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