May 27, 2004 - From the May, 2004 issue

Waste Management's Doug Corcoran Assesses L.A.'s Prospects Of Becoming "Landfill Free"

Mayor Hahn hopes that L.A. can become a landfill free city by 2020, but the costs and logistics of an alternative trash management plan have yet to be fully fleshed out. MIR is pleased to present this interview with Waste Management District Manager Doug Corcoran, in which he discusses the challenges facing Los Angeles' effort to become a andfill free city, and the need for a regional waste management solution.


Doug Corcoran

Doug, since we interviewed you last in July of 2002, why don't we take this opportunity to have you bring our readers up to date on the status and future of the Bradley Landfill within the city of L.A., operated by Waste Management?

We have an application before the city to increase the height of the landfill by 43 feet at the top, and to construct and operate a transfer station/recycling center once the additional height increase is exhausted. We have been out in the community gathering input, learning about the primary issues the community has not only with the site itself and our industry, but also with the notion of being a mixed residential/industrial community. We are trying to figure out how we can tailor our project so that we address specific neighborhood concerns regarding our facility, and to improve our commitment and involvement with the community.

Key to this is the Community Advisory Committee that has been set up by the Council office. The Committee is a cross-section of people and interests from Sun Valley. Businesses, schools, environmentalists, healthcare providers, residents, employees are all represented on the Committee. The Committee has been meeting for almost a year, learning about our project, about landfills in general, and about technology that can make it easier for communities and industrial neighbors to live together. The Committee has been a great help to both WM and the community with input and recommendations. We are taking steps to make our planned recycling and transfer center more "green" in terms of its design and operations. We also are looking at ways to retrofit our trucks to lower the diesel emissions, to landscape the facility prior to and after closure, as well as what use to put the landfill facility to after it is closed.

The EIR for the project is underway. We're hoping that the initial portion of the studies will be done and a draft report will be completed by the end of summer. Upon completion, they'll go out to the public for further review and comment.

In an interview with L.A.'s Rita Robinson last month, MIR asked about the city's strategy for moving away from landfills. She indicated there was a task force of stakeholders looking at the alternatives. Is Waste Management involved in that task force? And, what are the likely alternatives?

We weren't asked to be part of the task force, although we did offer our services and offer to present a number of times. But, they declined. We had hoped, naturally, to be involved in whatever direction the city takes going forward. I know the task force is primarily focused on the more advanced transformation type facilities and an attempt to get out of landfills all together. My read on the report was that there's a lot of good stuff in there, but it's far out into the future and doesn't deal adequately with any near term (a 5-10 year time frame) waste removal needs.

Bring to bear Waste Management's vast experience on what ought to be on the table for consideration.

First of all, they need to be realistic, in addition to idealistic, and make sure they can deal with the trash in the short term. We need to know how the trash will get picked up off the curb, where it's going, and that it will be responsibly handled. They should begin on a small scale when developing the more innovative ideas. Pilot recycling projects in multi-family dwellings are a good starting point, but operationally it is very hard and expensive to make those programs work. The industry and the city have been working at that problem for years, and there is little progress so far or foreseeable in the immediate future on a large scale. There is another proposal right now, called "Bio-converter Park," which proposes to take green waste and potentially food waste and convert it into a high-grade fertilizer, generate electricity, create natural gas and CO2. That's the type of advance we have to look forward to. But, they need to start on a smaller scale, and that's how Bio-converter is going about it.

We have a lot of expertise in our company, but we're not in a position to drive that agenda in the city. That's really a local government responsibility at this point. The issue is what does the city of L.A. want? And then, we can offer up our expertise to help those goals.

Doug, why then don't all cities have bio-converters right now?

Part of the challenge is that all of these alternatives will cost more than landfills traditionally cost. That is, it would seem to cost more on the surface when you look at the cost of trash removal in isolation. There are other considerations, but I'm not aware of information that would layout the overall cost and return on investment for the sale of gas or fertilizer. It's just so new that nobody's quite sure about how that would all shake out.

We also talked to Rita about sanitation equipment charges, tonnage rates and her budgetary challenges as part of the city family. Do you have any thoughts on how high these costs are going and how cities might best address paying for them?

The costs are going up. It's going to cost more to handle the waste in the future than it is right now. It's just getting more complicated. And especially, if landfills are going to be a target for elimination, there will be a need for newer equipment, different equipment, more people, and all of it will cost more. The source from which cities will be able to draw the funds needed to pay for these newer services is unknown. Some cities are raising trash fees on residents, some on businesses, some on the hauling industry, and some are imposing other fees that subsidize their trash disposal and recycling programs. I think people are going to have to make a decision in their daily lives on what they really want. If you don't want a landfill, then you've just got to reduce the waste created in the first place and also prepare to pay more to handle the trash. And that's where the money would have to come from-taxpayers and/or homeowners. I know that's not the answer that everybody wants to hear, but that's the reality of the situation.

How would you assess Los Angeles' program to use separate trash containers? Has that effort been successful? Has the educational campaign been successful?

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It was effective for what they wanted to do, which was to get people to separate the trash at the curb or at their home. And the rates of diversion that L.A. is reporting is evidence that it did achieve the desired goal. Today, we're trying to get from 50% to 70% diversion and this is where people have to look deep into the whole business and the whole way of handling trash. As the diversion rates go higher, though, the cost and effort increase more than in the earlier stages. If you go to any material recovery facility you will see a lot of recyclable material wasted either because of contamination with food and trash, or you will see a lot of recyclables for which there is not a good market. If there is not a good end-market for recyclables, they will wind up in landfills also.

What more needs to happen for there to be more success?

People need to be given a fuller picture of what happens to their trash or recyclables from the minute they toss it into the can. They should be able to follow the trail their trash travails all the way to its ultimate destination – whether it goes to a landfill or is recycled into something that finds its way back into the consumer market. People need to understand the entire circle of handling material to associate the cost out of pocket against the cost to the environment. Then, what is the economic cost of acquiring raw and recycled material? It sounds somewhat academic, but people need to understand the trade-offs involved in trash collection and recycling. And until they do, you're only going to end up with shortsighted arguments over changes in trash bill rates. I think we have to break out of that simplistic discussion and address the true challenges and strategies needed to sustain our economy.

Another thing that Waste Management and other companies in the industry must do is to be open and communicative with their neighbors and stakeholders. We need our stakeholders to have a better understanding of our business, our operations, our goals and our plans. We need to be good neighbors and to build trust so that we can work together to develop solutions. We really share many of the same goals – protecting the environment, helping the community, providing employment, and more.

Let's return to the Bradley Landfill. When MIR last interviewed you, there was some discussion of waste energy and the potential to convert Bradley to a source of energy, generating electricity using landfill gas. Can you bring us up to date on what happened with that initiative?

We're running up to five generators right now that are powered by landfill gas. They basically produce enough power for about 6,000 homes. So we moved forward with that project. We've got some challenges in front of us regarding the noise that the generators make. We're addressing that and the issue should be behind us relatively soon.

I believe, at this point, we're the only green power going into the DWP grid, and as you may know, environmentalist activists and others are demanding that the City increase its sources of renewable energy or green power. The next phase of that project is a little bit further out there, again like some of these other technologies. The next phase will be to take landfill gas, clean it, and then cool it down to create liquid natural gas. Then, we can use that gas to power our hauling fleet and other LNG trucks, and thereby deal with emissions from our own mobile sources.

It's 2006. What's the lay of the land with respect to the issues we've been talking about today? What's the landfil capacity? What are the alternatives on the table? What are the issues that have had to be resolved?

If the city follows through with their plans that would mean that their residential waste would no longer be going to Sunshine Canyon, Bradley Landfill, or any other local landfill. However, the trash has to go somewhere. And, to get to those more distant or remote destinations, it likely will have to go through transfer stations because there isn't another feasible landfill close enough to avoid them. So, we hope the Bradley transfer station will be up and running by or very soon after 2006.

How do you factor in the municipal budget shortfalls?

That's going to be a challenge for L.A., because it's going to cost the City more to move it out of the local landfill. Sunshine Canyon will still exist – it will still take waste. But according to the city, it won't be getting residential contracts. The municipal budgets also will have to deal with increasing populations that create more waste, increasing fleet/truck costs, increasing fuel costs, increasing wage and insurance rates, as well as the increased cost of transitioning trucks to cleaner burning engines and fuels. Just like the with the consumer, one thing they are sure to see is higher prices and fees.

And what issues will remain to be resolved in 2006 and beyond?

To be honest with you, it's not very far off. And this whole discussion points out how long-term, regional and costly this issue is. It also is fraught with political, community and regional challenges and conflict. The longer we put off the hard decisions, the more costly and painful the cure will be. That is my concern, we are backing ourselves into a corner by not ensuring two things: first, short-term local landfill capacity; and second, a doable and cost-effective long-term public policy for recycling and disposal.

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