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Climate and Environment

A Burning Question: Trash Incinerator In Long Beach Faces Uncertain Future

A black and white image of a trash incinerator in Long Beach. A tall stack emits a faint plume on the left and a wide cylindrical white tank reads "COVANTA SERRF" on the right.
The trash incinerator in Long Beach, which is officially called the Southeast Resource Recovery Facility, or SERRF.
(East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice )
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Most of us don’t think about our trash after we toss it. But trash doesn’t just disappear after leaving our homes. Most of it either ends up in a landfill or is burned in Long Beach, at one of the last remaining trash incinerators in California.

Since 1988, Long Beach has burned the bulk of its trash—and trash from other cities across L.A. County—that isn’t recycled or thrown in a landfill. Trash incineration was seen as a solution to overstuffed landfills as the southern California population ballooned.

Back then, Long Beach's plant was cutting-edge technology. Proponents lauded the ability to turn waste into a resource. It was dubbed a “waste-to-energy” facility—burning trash generates heat that can be captured and converted into energy. By 1989, California established a state law to incentivize burning trash for energy instead of sending it to the landfill.

But it came at a cost. Trash incinerators can emit toxins that can be dangerous for public health—and those effects are distributed unequally. The population within a five-mile radius of Long Beach's incinerator is 81% people of color with an average per capita income of $28,312, according to federal data.

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It's located on Terminal Island, in an area that's been flagged by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for pollutants that can harm the health of nearby residents, the closest of which are less than 2 miles away.

The city of Long Beach, which owns the incinerator (officially called the Southeast Resource Recovery Facility, or SERRF), said in an email to LAist that the plant uses “the best available control technology for pollution control, removing 99% of hydrogen chloride, 95% of sulfur dioxide acid gases and 99.5% of the particulate matter.” Those are all substances that can harm health.

An image of grey warehouse with a pile of dark black ash.
A photo taken during a 2018 inspection of SERRF shows a pile of ash in a warehouse at the facility. The report, obtained through a public records request by environmental group Earthjustice, also noted ash coated parts of streets just outside the facility on Terminal Island.

The incinerator burns food and other organic waste, non-recyclable trash and plastics. With plastics recycling on the decline, trash incinerators are burning more of the stuff. A 2019 report from the EPA found that burning plastics has contributed to a 42% increase in carbon dioxide emissions from incinerators in the U.S. since 1990. Carbon dioxide is the most prevalent greenhouse gas heating up our planet.

There are efforts underway to address these issues. California has a new law that requires all cities to compost food waste. When food decomposes in a landfill it emits methane, a greenhouse gas dozens of times more powerful than carbon dioxide and a major reason why landfills are the state's third-largest source of methane.

The Legislature also just passed a comprehensive plastics law that puts more onus on plastics producers to be responsible for the entire lifecycle of their product. But with these efforts just rolling out, the fate of one of the state's last incinerators is unclear.

Incentivizing "Zero-Waste"

Byron Chan, an associate attorney with the non-profit environmental group Earthjustice, said now it's time for the state to stop giving out incentives for burning trash.

“We're not going to have a zero-waste economy tomorrow …in two, three or four years,” Chan said in a phone interview. “But it's a process and a commitment that we have to make today to build toward that.”

He said a proposed state law could help. Assembly Bill 1857, introduced by Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens), would nix the financial credit that local governments get for burning trash instead of sending it to landfills.

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As state law currently stands, local jurisdictions have to divert at least 50% of their waste from landfills to instead be recycled, composted, or converted into energy. The law allows cities to send up to 10% of their waste to incinerators to receive the diversion credit.

“The idea is good in spirit in that we want to encourage jurisdictions to not send all of their waste to landfills,” Chan said. “What that means in practice is that incineration is being incentivized the same as recycling. So you have cities throughout California sending their waste to Long Beach to be burned. And it's really treating these incinerators and the communities surrounding them as dumping grounds.”

A Necessary Evil?

The bill is likely to face resistance. Without SERRF, the City of Long Beach would have to rely on the use of landfills for its disposal needs, according to Bob Dowell, the city’s energy resources director.

“This would mean transporting waste long distances, which would increase mobile emissions along transportation corridors and would also increase the City’s carbon footprint,” Dowell said in an email.

Additionally, he said the incinerator creates a needed supply of local energy. It produces about 212,000 megawatt hours of electricity per year, which he said is enough to supply approximately 35,000 homes (that’s about 0.3% of the energy consumed across L.A. county). That energy is used to power the facility itself, or it's sold. In past years, the city sold the energy to Southern California Edison, making about $24 million a year, but the power giant ended that contract in 2018 because wind and solar power are now cheaper. The city has a new contract for less money with the California ISO.

“The Port of Long Beach is a huge power user and without SERRF the local Port electrical grid could become unstable during periods of high-power demand,” Dowell said. “The State is predicting a potential 1,700 MW electricity shortfall this summer, which could impact other critical sectors such as water supply delivery. SERRF plays an important part to keeping every megawatt of energy generation online.”

He said that if AB 1857 is signed into law, the incinerator won’t be financially viable and the city would likely have to turn to trucking waste to landfills outside the city, which he said would create more planet-heating and health-harming emissions. Long Beach officials have called it a "bridge" to a zero-waste future.

Is It 'Green Marketing'?

But critics call waste-to-energy facilities like SERRF “greenwashing" and say continuing to burn trash is short-sighted amid a climate and plastics crisis. Whitney Amaya grew up in Long Beach in a neighborhood already inundated with heavy industry from the nearby ports and oil refineries. When her family drove to the beach at San Pedro, they’d pass the incinerator.

Now, she’s an advocate for a zero-waste future with grassroots group East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. She said more resources should be put into local composting and recycling initiatives, as well as efforts to reduce the production of waste in general—instead of incineration. She said a true zero-waste future encompasses such local efforts and incentivizes creating more durable and repairable products in general—in short, she believes now is the time to invest in a transformative, community-centered approach to society’s relationship with waste.

“I think Long Beach can definitely be a model if it wants to be,” Amaya said in a phone interview. “There's a zero-waste culture here and community is ready to take on this journey. But I think there's just a lot of barriers in moving in that direction.”

The city said it’s working toward coming into compliance with the state's new composting law, which would take a lot of food waste out of landfills and the incinerator, as well as exploring other opportunities to reduce waste and improve recycling—ideally locally, they said. The city’s operations agreement for the facility ends in 2024, so Long Beach officials will soon have to decide whether to spend $60 million dollars to upgrade the incinerator, which has an average lifespan of 30 years—or shut it down.

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