A Burning Question: Trash Incinerator In Long Beach Faces Uncertain Future (2023)

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.

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A Burning Question: Trash Incinerator In Long Beach Faces Uncertain Future (1)

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.

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“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.

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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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FAQs

What is the biggest problem with burning waste incineration? ›

Waste incineration creates air pollution and requires strong environmental controls. When waste is burned in incineration facilities it produces hazardous air pollutants including particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), carbon monoxide, acid gases, nitrogen oxides and cancer-causing dioxins.

What is a problem with trash incineration? ›

Due to increasing quantities of waste sent to incineration, incinerators will emit more toxins and pollutants that harm local air quality. Incineration makes a more significant negative contribution to local air quality than landfill.

Why are people opposed to incinerators in their area? ›

Incinerators harm air quality

In addition to greenhouse gas emissions that exacerbate climate change, incinerators emit many toxins and pollutants that harm local air quality. Emissions include dioxins, NOx and ultrafine particulate matter that can be harmful to both human health and the natural environment.

Why does the US not burn trash? ›

As mentioned above, burning trash produces air pollution with toxic chemicals that are known to be carcinogenic, or cancer-causing. Chemicals like benzene, styrene, toluene, furan, and many others are released by burning trash and can be easily inhaled by those around the campfire.

What are the problems of burning waste? ›

Burning trash can cause long-term health problems. The toxic chemicals released during burning include nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and polycyclic organic matter (POMs). Burning plastic and treated wood also releases heavy metals and toxic chemicals, such as dioxin.

Is it safe to live near an incinerator? ›

This process of waste incineration poses a significant threat to public health and the environment. The major impact on health is the higher incidence of cancer and respiratory symptoms; other potential effects are congenital abnormalities, hormonal defects, and increase in sex ratio.

What is the main disadvantage of a waste incinerator? ›

Regardless of what is being burned (mixed municipal solid waste, plastic, outputs from “chemical recycling”), waste incineration creates and/or releases harmful chemicals and pollutants, including: Air pollutants such as particulate matter, which cause lung and heart diseases.

Is burning trash better for the environment? ›

Some backers even claim that gasification and pyrolysis release zero emissions. But the truth is that burning anything creates air pollution and ash. So, when you burn toxic trash, no matter which technology you use, you're going to release harmful emissions into the air.

What are the two major problems with incineration of solid waste? ›

Pollutes the environment

Smoke is produced while the waste is burned. Many gases are produced which includes acid gases, carcinogen dioxin, particulates, and nitrogen oxide. The gases pollute the environment. Many researches show that the gases released are cancer- causing gases.

What is one negative consequences of burning waste? ›

Burning our waste poses considerable risks to the health and environment of nearby communities as well as the broader public. Even the most technologically advanced incinerators release thousands of pollutants that contaminate our air, soil, and water.

How are incinerators good for the environment? ›

An incinerator is a container or device used for burning things that are considered waste. Some incinerators burn waste on a massive scale and turn it into energy, leading them to be touted as green alternatives to landfill.

Is incineration better than recycling? ›

A combination of recycling and composting can save three to four times more energy than an incinerator can produce.

Does the U.S. sell their trash to China? ›

Data taken from the US Census Bureau shows that 78% of those exports were sent to countries with poor waste management. These countries, such as China, India, Malaysia and Indonesia lack the infrastructure and regulation to effectively and sustainably sort, process, and recycle plastic waste into new materials.

What country burns all their trash? ›

Turning trash into energy: Sweden's recycling strategy

By turning trash into energy, Sweden provides heating to over 1 million households.

Does Japan burn their garbage? ›

Incineration is the most widely used waste disposal method in Japan, and is attractive because of its ability to reduce the volume of trash in a country mostly occupied by mountains or people. In 2017, there were about 1,200 incineration facilities in Japan. In 2014, 358 of these plants also generated electricity.

How does burning garbage affect humans? ›

Open burning of garbage poses health risks to those exposed directly to the smoke. It especially affects people with sensitive respiratory systems, as well as children and the elderly. In the short term, exposure to smoke can cause headaches, nausea, and rashes.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of incineration? ›

Various Advantages and Disadvantages of Waste Incineration
  • Reduced Quantity of Waste.
  • Efficient Waste Management.
  • Production of Heat and Power.
  • Reduction of Pollution Compared to Landfills.
  • Reduced Reliance on Transportation.
  • Better Control Over Odor and Noise.
  • Provides Better Control Over Odor and Noise.

What health problems can be caused by burning or burning plastic? ›

“Burning of plastic waste increase the risk of heart disease, aggravates respiratory ailments such as asthma and emphysema and cause rashes, nausea or headaches, and damages the nervous system,” says the study. Burning plastic also releases black carbon (soot), which contributes to climate change and air pollution.

Do incinerators smell? ›

Odor pollution can be a problem with old-style incinerators, but odors and dust are extremely well controlled in newer incineration plants.

What is one of the main risks associated with incineration? ›

This process of waste incineration poses a significant threat to public health and the environment. The major impact on health is the higher incidence of cancer and respiratory symptoms; other potential effects are congenital abnormalities, hormonal defects, and increase in sex ratio.

Is incineration worse than landfill? ›

Incineration is more polluting than landfills. Incinerators do not avoid landfills. For every 100 tons of trash burned, 30 tons become toxic ash that goes to landfills. The other 70 tons don't turn into energy, but become air pollution.

What are the 5 benefits of waste management? ›

Benefits
  • Resource Conservation. IDEM encourages the 3Rs of waste – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. ...
  • Energy Production and Environmental Quality. ...
  • Fertilizer and Soil Amendment. ...
  • Environmental Contamination. ...
  • Potential Negative Health Effects.

Which incinerator is more efficient? ›

Thermal incinerators are often the best choice when high efficiencies are needed and the waste gas is above 20% of the LEL.

What are the three types of incinerator? ›

Three main types of incinerators are used: controlled air, excess air, and rotary kiln.

What are the advantages of burning trash? ›

Burning solid waste saves trash-hauling expenses, provides a cheap source of power, and does less harm to the environment than landfills, say proponents of this method.

What is an alternative to burning trash? ›

Composting, mulching, chipping, natural decomposition, etc. are recommended alternatives.

Why do people burn trash? ›

People burn trash for various reasons-either because it is easier than hauling it to the local disposal site or to avoid paying for regular waste collection service. In the past, backyard burning may have been the only way that many rural Americans could get rid of their waste.

What is the biggest problem in waste management? ›

Indiscriminate burning of waste can cause major air pollution and increases greenhouse emissions. As well as the immediate affect on the local air quality, often accompanied by an increase in respiratory diseases, it also contributes to global warming.

What type of waste Cannot be incinerated? ›

The main concern everyone has regarding incineration is toxic fume production. Items that contain volatile chemicals can release gases that harm local communities — this includes batteries and products that contain them. Lithium or alkaline, household or industrial, you can't simply burn these items away.

What are the three effects of waste on environment? ›

Air pollution, climate change, soil and water contamination

Poor waste management contributes to climate change and air pollution, and directly affects many ecosystems and species. Landfills, considered the last resort in the waste hierarchy, release methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas linked to climate change.

Is it legal to use an incinerator? ›

When used correctly and for permitted items, garden incinerators may be used to burn waste items, as there are no laws that provide a blanket ban on burning rubbish or lighting a bonfire in your garden. However, you may wish to get rid of your garden waste by composting it instead.

What are 2 advantages of incinerating waste? ›

Incineration of waste offers the following advantages: Volume reduction: Important for bulky solids or wastes with a high combustible and/or moisture content. Detoxification: Especially for biological waste, pathologically contaminated materials, toxic organic compounds, and combustible carcinogens.

Are incinerators bad for climate change? ›

This means that the electricity generated by waste incineration has significantly higher greenhouse emissions than electricity generated through conventional means, such as fossil gas (340g CO2eq per kWh)5 - it is clearly therefore, not a climate friendly alternative.

What material is best for incineration? ›

A material commonly associated with waste incineration is municipal solid waste (MSW). This type of waste is usually classed as general waste within the industry. MSW contains materials such as household waste, food waste, cardboard, and paper. All of these are safe to incinerate.

What dangers are there in burning waste in incinerators? ›

Such effects include cancer (among both children and adults) adverse impacts on the respiratory system, heart disease, immune system effects, increased allergies and congenital abnormalities. Some studies, particularly those on cancer, relate to old rather than modern incinerators.

What are two disadvantages incineration? ›

(ii) Incineration kills pathogenic organisms and reduces the volume of the waste up to 50 percent. Disadvantage: (i) Incineration equipment has high maintenance requirements. (ii) Incineration consumes significant amount of energy to achieve high temperature.

What is a benefit of using a waste incinerator? ›

Waste-to-energy processes at specialist incineration plants can greatly reduce the volume of waste that is landfilled. According to the US Energy Information Administration, WtE plants are able to reduce the volume of waste by about 87%, burning 2,000 pounds of garbage to ash weighing between 300 and 600 pounds.

What are the three main advantages of incineration? ›

Incineration of waste offers the following advantages: Volume reduction: Important for bulky solids or wastes with a high combustible and/or moisture content. Detoxification: Especially for biological waste, pathologically contaminated materials, toxic organic compounds, and combustible carcinogens.

What is the main purpose of incineration process? ›

Incineration is a thermal waste treatment technique that can be understood as a controlled combustion process with the primary objective of volume reduction and energy recovery from the waste stream.

How can incineration be prevented? ›

Here are some simple tips to avoid the need to burn your trash:
  1. Reduce. Avoid waste. ...
  2. Re-use. Buy products that can be re-used and/or come in containers that can be re-filled.
  3. Recycle. Learn about your community's recycling programs. ...
  4. Compost. Compost plant-based kitchen and yard waste.
  5. Dispose.

What are the effects of waste on environment? ›

Air pollution, climate change, soil and water contamination

Poor waste management contributes to climate change and air pollution, and directly affects many ecosystems and species. Landfills, considered the last resort in the waste hierarchy, release methane, a very powerful greenhouse gas linked to climate change.

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