Sustainabilities: Eco-oriented | Justice-oriented

Recent events in the Salinas Valley town of Gonzales brought attention to a long-standing debate in California over whether, and under what conditions, municipal solid waste should be considered a renewable energy source. After a controversial selection process in 2008, the Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority chose Plasco Energy Group to build a waste conversion facility that proposed to convert municipal solid waste into energy. Commercial waste conversion plants were first constructed during the energy crisis of the 1970s in an attempt to reuse materials and create energy from solid wastes. Today the industry and its supporters are promoting a new wave of conversion plants, in large part by relying on the contemporary discourse of sustainability. Their notion of trash as a “renewable resource” and source of “green energy” intends to situate waste conversion alongside solar panels and wind turbines as a twenty-first century solution to environmental problems.


Workers cover the existing landfill at the site of the proposed “waste-to-energy” facility in Gonzales. Photo: Tracy Perkins

Public policy in California encourages the production of renewable energy, and the state has required utility companies to obtain 33% of their electricity from renewable resources by 2020. Plasco hoped to capitalize on this political moment by certifying its proposed facility in Gonzales as a source of renewable energy. Their efforts were contested by Gonzales residents organized with Asamblea de Poder Popular de Gonzales and San Francisco-based Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, who argued that the Plasco facility would be anything but sustainable and that the energy produced would not qualify as “renewable.” They also argued that Plasco’s facility would release toxic air emissions into this low-income, Latino community, and that this would represent another instance in a long history of environmental injustice in California. This debate revealed the increasing economic value of terms like “renewable” and “sustainable,” and the struggles over defining them.

Waste conversion technologies include thermal, chemical, mechanical, and biological processes that convert solid waste into sellable products such as fuel or gas. Each technology has different environmental and political implications. The most widely used waste conversion practice is mass-burn incineration, a thermal process that burns trash to produce steam that can then be converted into electricity. In the process, mass-burn incineration also creates toxic air emissions such as dioxins and furans. There are currently 86 waste conversion incinerators in the U.S., but in the past few decades incineration has become politically unpopular. No new commercial incinerators have been constructed in the country since 1997, due in part to consistent public opposition caused by the harmful air pollutants released in the process.

Plasco proposed to use a thermochemical process called gasification, which converts trash into a synthetic gas through a heating process that uses less oxygen than incineration (it also used a plasma torch as a heat source – for this reason Plasco’s technology is considered “plasma-assisted gasification”). The synthetic gas is an intermediate product – it would then go through a traditional combustion process to produce useable electricity. Gasification was first developed to convert coal into gas to light nineteenth century homes; later technologies converted this gas into electricity. This process was first used with trash as a “feedstock” in the 1970s, and today the Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology Council, housed at Columbia University, the Southern California Conversion Technology Project (it’s slogan: “Advancing Sustainable Waste Management”), and the annual Waste Conversion Congress (organized by a group called Renewable Waste Intelligence) are a few examples of the emerging support and investment in using this technology to process household waste.

Firms like Plasco promote themselves as a green alternative to traditional incineration in large part by advertising the first stage of the waste conversion process (often referred to taking place in an “oxygen-starved” environment that creates fewer toxins than mass-burn incineration), and downplaying the other stages of the process. Little independent research has been conducted to evaluate industry claims regarding their air emissions. Most reports by scholars or consultants rely on industry-reported data, and much of the literature on waste conversion today has been published in industry and trade journals. Advocacy groups like Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and the Global Alliance for Incineration Alternatives argue that gasification plants are in fact “incinerators in disguise,” and challenge some of the industries most oft-repeated claims: that they are less polluting than mass-burn incinerators, that the toxic emissions they produce are not harmful to local residents, and even the claim that they can produce energy efficiently. They also point to the handful of companies that have falsely claimed that their waste conversion processes produce “zero air emissions” as an example of industry distortion of the facts.1

Although waste is currently considered a valid source of renewable energy under California law, Plasco’s facility in Gonzales did not qualify to sell renewable energy because of its projected air emissions. Plasco tried to change this through legislative efforts. They did not succeed, but their efforts gained traction in other parts of the government, including the state governor’s office. The Gonzales facility was even pre-certified for inclusion in the California Renewables Portfolio in spite of the law in 2011, but this pre-certification was rescinded in 2012 in the face of continued political opposition. Losing eligibility to sell their energy as renewable made their project financially unviable, and Plasco put their Gonzales proposal on hold in 2013.

The future of these projects hinges on the industry’s ability to convince legislators to create supportive policy environments that make their projects financially viable, and their ability to convince host communities that the associated air emissions are not health-threatening. In response to current critiques, industry supporters argue that emission levels will decrease over time with increased capital investment and government support, while their ability to produce significant levels of energy will increase. Regardless of whether these technological improvements materialize, however, treating waste as a commodity poses its own problems. If waste conversion facilities become widespread and profitable, what incentive is there to aggressively pursue the long-term environmental goals of reducing waste production in the first place, or of recycling? Many of the materials we consume are produced and transported through unsustainable processes: oil extraction, mining, manufacturing and long-distance trucking and shipping. Will turning municipal waste into a source of profit encourage this ultimately unsustainable treadmill of production and consumption?

The proposal in Gonzales ended when Plasco filed for bankruptcy in 2015. However, the larger debates in which the proposal was enmeshed are not going away anytime soon. Waste conversion technologies have sparked new interest across the country, and some of these waste conversion firms will find themselves in a position to take advantage of growing markets in renewable energy: as of 2013, 30 states had adopted a renewable fuel standard, and two-thirds of these states consider municipal waste a renewable energy source. Here, the conflict over waste as renewable energy is part of a broader set of questions: As words like “sustainable,” “renewable,” and “green” become more and more widely used, what do they actually mean, in practice? To what degree do profit-seeking industries have a hand in defining these keywords of contemporary environmentalism? How can the public best distinguish between projects that represent significant environmental improvements, projects that use the popularity of environmentalism to sell the same old products in a new guise, and projects in the murky territory in between?

Tracy Perkins and Lindsey Dillon

[Tracy Perkins was formerly a member of the board of directors of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, which has advocated against the facility described here.]

Published August 1, 2015

1. See the following sources:

Ducharme, Caroline. “Technical and economic analysis of Plasma-assisted Waste-to-Energy processes.” M.S. Thesis, Columbia University, 2010. Accessed October 5, 2013. http://www.seas.columbia.edu/earth/wtert/sofos/ducharme_thesis.pdf.

Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice. “Untrue Statements and Key Omissions by the Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority in their Presentation to SVSWA Board Members Urging Approval of Moving Forward With the Proposed Plasco Plasma Arc Facility,” Feb. 4, 2011. Accessed October 4, 2013. http://greenaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/SVSWA_UntrueStatements_4feb2011.pdf.

Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice. “Gasification, Plasma Arc and Pyrolysis: Renewable Energy & Recycling – or Incinerators in Disguise?” August 2012. Accessed October 4, 2013. http://greenaction.org/powerpoint-incinerators-in-disguise-august-2012/.

Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. “Incinerators in Disguise: Case Studies of Gasification, Pyrolysis, and Plasma in Europe, Asia, and the United States.” June 2006. Accessed October 4, 2013. http://www.greenaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/IncineratorsInDisguiseCaseStudyReportJune2006.pdf.

Howard, C. Vyvyan, “Statement of Evidence, Particulate Emissions and Health, Proposed Ringaskiddy Waste-to-Energy Facility,” June 2009. Accessed October 5, 2013. http://www.cawdrec.com/incineration/CVH.pdf.

Youngs, Heather. “Waste-to-Energy in California: Technology, Issues, and Context.” California Council on Science and Technology. October, 2011. Accessed October 5, 2013. http://www.ccst.us/publications/2011/2011wte.pdf.