Trash ‘smoothies’ could be future sources of fuel, but cities first need a plan to process organic waste

At a water pollution control plant in Carson, a trash “smoothie” is fed into a six-story tall “stomach” where an anaerobic digestion process will allow methane to be extracted and turned into fuel for cars and other biosolids like fertilizers.

The plant is operated by the Los Angeles County Sanitation District and it uses the extracted methane for a nearby gas station it operates in Carson that’s open to the public. The plant produces about 1,300 gasoline-gallon-equivalents per day.

Will Chen, a supervising engineer for the Los Angeles County Sanitation District, which operates the Carson site, said that they expect more “smoothie” trash to be delivered to the plant as new laws take affect in the coming months that require cities to divert organic waste from landfills and into facilities like this.

“The more slurry we receive in the coming months and coming years, the more RNG [renewable natural gas] we’re going to be able to produce,” Chen said, estimating that about 4,000 tons of organic material could soon have to be processed in the region per day.

The reason why Chen is expecting such an increase is because a new state law requiring that food scraps and yard waste be diverted from landfills to reduce methane emissions in California goes into effect Jan. 1.

Senate Bill 1383, otherwise known as the Short-Lived Climate Pollutants Organic Waste Methane Emissions bill, was signed into law in September 2016. It requires organic waste such as food scraps, yard waste and fibers from papers and cardboard to be separated from regular trash and recyclables and processed in ways similar to the plants in Puente Hills and Carson.

CalRecycle, the state agency in charge of the program, estimates that 20% of California’s methane emissions are generated from organic waste in landfills and that organic waste makes up half of what goes into the state’s trash dumps.

Lawmakers hope that the law can reduce organic waste disposal by 75% while also saving 20% of surplus edible food from being thrown out by 2025.

The law will be enforceable starting in January, but its passage did not include any funding from the state. That means cities like Long Beach have to figure out how it will comply with the new state law without the aid of state funding, which will likely result in increases to residential refuse bills.

Like other cities, Long Beach is expected to miss the enforcement deadline that is just months away, according to a recent city memo. But it will have to come into compliance soon.

Erin Rowland, a waste diversion and recycling officer in the city, said Long Beach is still trying to figure out how much the new program is going to cost.

It could include buying new trucks, issuing new green bins to customers and paying for haulers to transport the material to processing plants that accept organic waste. This month the city announced a pilot-program that includes 115 local businesses that will collect food scraps that will be delivered to the Puente Hills facility.

Galindo Calderon owns one of those participating businesses. His East Long Beach Flame Broiler location has been part of the program since June and every night they take the leftover carrots, broccoli, beef and chicken that doesn’t make it into their bowls and put them in a bin that the city collects. Calderon said it’s been a painless experience.

“If I can do something to help, I’m OK with it,” Calderon said of the program that will soon become mandatory. “I hope it helps reduce the pollution.”

While the Carson facility can only handle food scraps, others can handle both yard waste and food scraps and paper fibers, while newer technology at some private plants that the city doesn’t currently have access to allows for unsorted trash to be processed in compliance with the state’s new law.

“The technology does exist but if it’s feasible for us to access it is a different question,” Rowland said.

This could complicate things for Long Beach since it will likely only issue one new green can to customers who will be instructed to put all three types of materials into them. Rowland said that things could get easier as more sites are developed but the state currently has a need for about 150 more processing sites.

Rowland said the city is hopeful it can partner with a site that can handle all materials that will end up in the new green cans the city could soon be required to issue.

While there could be flexibility for cities like Long Beach in bringing its program online, the law allows jurisdictions to enforce the separation of organic materials with fines that can range from $50 to $500 depending on the type of violation starting January 2024.

Any violations occurring before that can be addressed with educational material, according to the law.

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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