As Long Beach bids farewell to its waste-burning facility, the city is facing a new reality that could bring higher trash rates to customers while it works to comply with a new state recycling law.
Long Beach had been paying about $60 per ton to dispose of its trash at the Southeast Resource Recovery Facility in the Port of Long Beach, where trash was regularly burned instead of buried at a landfill.
But under a new contract approved by the City Council Tuesday night, the city will pay an average of about $90 per ton to have its trash trucked out to landfills, and eventually, organic recycling processing centers.
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The effect on customers’ monthly bills is not yet known, but they’re expected to increase.
“Currently right now, we’re projecting it’s going to go up,” said Josh Hickman, the deputy director of Public Works. “We just don’t know how much.”
For decades, Long Beach had sent hundreds of tons of trash to SERRF every day where it was burned and converted to energy instead of being stored in a landfill, where emissions like methane can leak into the air.
However, changes in state law that gave tax credits to cities like Long Beach that burned their trash at the facility have ended. The change prompted SERRF’s current operator to notify the city earlier this year that it was no longer financially viable to keep the facility running.
Long Beach officials said that it would have cost millions in repairs and investments to keep the site open for just a few more years, but that route could also end up costing the city an additional $100 million, due in part to a lack of revenue being generated by the site.
“That really is the X factor,” City Manager Tom Modica said Tuesday, noting the unknown regulatory and financial obstacles the city could face if SERRF were kept open.
The site will begin to have hazards removed and systems de-energized in advance of demolition, which could happen by the end of the year.
The city is looking to replace SERRF with its own organic recycling center, something that there is a shortage of in Southern California, which has led to a time crunch for cities trying to comply with Senate Bill 1383.
On Tuesday, the council approved an exclusive negotiating window with Bioenergy Devco in hopes of striking a deal that could bring an organic recycling facility to the city.
Bob Dowell, the city’s director of Energy Resources, said the facility could serve other cities in the region like SERRF did, helping provide a solution to the lack of recycling centers.
Dowell said an agreement could be reached in about six to eight months, but it could be three to five years before a new facility would be completed. In the interim, Long Beach will have to ship its organic waste to another facility.
The city has already begun collecting commercial organic waste from restaurants and other businesses, but it’s not expecting to roll out its residential program until later this year or early 2025.
The new law mandates that cities send things like yard clippings, food scraps and other organic material to separate facilities to be processed into things like mulch and fuel. It’s aimed at reducing the amount of methane produced by landfills by 75%.
The gas, which is produced by the decomposition of organic material is credited with being 28 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.
But the new legislation didn’t offer funding solutions for things like new trucks, collection bins and facilities that will be needed to make the law work.
Erin Rowland, the city’s general superintendent of recycling and waste reduction, said that the city plans to ask for another extension to comply with the law, which went into effect in 2022. Other cities including Long Beach have been able to qualify for extensions if they’re making progress toward implementing the law but the city could ask for another before the March deadline.
The city could also seek a change to the amount of mulch, compost, biofuel or electricity it’s required to purchase under the law. Long Beach could be required to purchase tens of thousands of tons of those materials, but Rowland said the city will work toward a legislative change that is more attainable.
“We’re not even sure if we had all that mulch we’d have somewhere to put it,” she said.
A hearing required under state law before a city raises rates on trash service is expected to be held by the council later this year when the city begins to phase in its residential collection program.