CTs: Why, Where, What, and When (Number 1)

Last week’s 2016 Southern California Conversion Technology Conference (SCCTC) put on by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works (LACDPW) focused on the need for the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) to rescind its exclusion from full diversion credit of thermochemical CTs for treating MSW feedstocks. The agenda proceeded through a series of presentations and panel discussions detailing the situation and refuting the State’s position that CTs do not meet its pollution limits criteria. It’s a situation sufficiently near and dear to my heart that I intend to address it in some detail in this column over the next several weeks. (See the agenda below.)

My personal interest goes back nearly two decades when in 1997, MSW Management’s companion publication, Remediation Management, blew the whistle on the use of Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE), then in general use as a gasoline additive, effective as an oxygenate. While MTBE’s effects in human health were at that moment inconclusive, its chemical properties and affinity for water created concerns borne out in continued testing. At that point, I suggested in an editorial that converting certain wastes to ethanol as an oxygenate in gasoline might prove beneficial, both in air quality and for waste diversion efforts. USDA had similar thoughts and launched its ag-based ethanol program…but that’s a discussion for another time.

In 1999, MSW Management, in conjunction with Santa Barbara’s Community Environmental Council, hosted a CT colloquy attended by the nation’s principal CT companies to discuss how to move efforts into the limelight. Participating in discussions were members of the California Integrated Waste Board—CalRecycle’s predecessor—who volunteered to take the helm for future CT group discussion activities. After two years in this role, the Waste Board dropped the program, passing its fate into the hands of the State’s legislature where it has remained until today.

There’s more to the history and the magazine’s further efforts on behalf of CT initiatives, but until recently when LACDWP and others in southern California took up the cudgel, things have remained pretty much at a standstill. The SCCTC marks the beginning of change, which we’ll detail in future blogs. For the moment, however, I’d like to discuss what I believe is at stake here…the future of integrated waste management in California, and to some extent the rest of the nation.

This is high-sounding stuff from an observer whose tenure is limited to the period in which we’ve seen the inculcation and subsequent evolution of the waste management hierarchy into the way we do business. While I admit to referring to our arrival at “crossroads” on several occasions in the past, I’m going back to the well one more time in the belief that we’ve reached a boundary beyond which lie serious consequences, and for which we will be judged by future generations.

During a period in the past, our waste management practices were the model for the rest of the world, but after we had codified much of what we had learned in the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts, we seemed more content to focus on peripheral issues rather than long-term goals and objectives.

Not so others in Europe and Asia—particularly the Scandinavian countries and Japan—who saw waste management as part of an overall process for achieving what might be called sustainable stewardship over earth resources. While not all of their programs have met with success, their concentration on goals rather than processes allowed them to move ahead of us in matters of stewardship. This did not take place overnight or without a fair amount of backing and filling on the way; nor are they anywhere near the finish line in their efforts.

The Japanese Experience

In Japan, the term used to explain the process is kaizen—continual improvement—a legacy of industrial management practices introduced following WWII by American, W. Edwards Deming, to improve management skills. Interestingly, kaizen was, to some extent, responsible for the spectacular increase in waste generation the country experienced since its introduction in the 1960s, a situation that led to such severe health and safety concerns that by the ’80s, it became apparent that rather than more regulations, what was needed was an entirely different approach to waste management, a vision giving rise to the nation’s Basic Act on Establishing a Sound Material Cycle Society, based on a hierarchy of methods for managing industrial waste.

Without going into specific activities and programs Japan has employed to move forward toward its goals, what’s significant is that it’s taken 20+ years to move the bar from where it was when 53% of Japan’s waste went to landfills, to today’s 4%. WTE in a variety of forms, including a goodly roster of CTs, is responsible for much of the change. Just as important for us is the tremendous amount of experience the nation has in making these processes more efficient.

Within the European and Japanese experiences lie several messages that we will be presenting over the next several weeks that we hope you will find useful in your own CT deliberations.

2016 Southern California Conversion Technology Conference Agenda

Welcome and Opening Remarks
Shari Afshari, Los Angeles County Dept. of Public Works (LACDPW)

Panel: Conversion Technologies and Best Practices Throughout the World
Moderator: Eugene Tseng, UCLA
David Schneider, Anaergia
Tim Cesarek, Enerkem Inc
Frank Campbell, Interstate Waste Technologies
Rob White, Sierra Energy

Panel: Environmental Findings from CT Studies and Projects
Moderator: Coby Skye, LACDPW
Christine Arbogast, Tetra Tech
Jacques Franco, UC-Davis
Bob Shaw, Medical Waste Services

Afternoon Keynote
Ethan Elkind, UC Berkeley

Panel: Conversion Technologies and Sustainability
Moderator: Bonny Bentzin, UCLA Office of Sustainability
Mark McDannel, Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County
Evan Williams, Renewable Natural Gas Coalition
Craig Cookson, American Chemistry Council
Kenny Miyagi, JFE Engineering America Inc.

Panel: CA Projects, Permitting, and Legislation
Moderator: Gary Petersen, Environmental Problem Solving Enterprises
Karen Bertram, Integrated Energy
Paul Relis, CR&R Waste Services
Greg Wolfe, Yorke Engineering LLC
Assemblymember Mike Gatto

Coby Skye, LACDPW


  • Nuggehalli Vasuki.

    Japan and Scandinavian societies are homogeneous The personal tax rates are high and the population is willing to pay for programs that support and enhance sustainability. Thier litigiousness is very low and my understanding is that timely decisions are made after allowing full public participation. That may be one reason why those societies can move ahead in adopting sustainable practices. One glaring example is the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage and containment plan. Even after 11 presidential terms, USA is unable to make a decision!

    • John T.

      All your points are well taken. What I’m trying to get at in this and what will be subsequent comments on the subject is that if we really wish to pursue environmental stewardship, the path must start with a plan that people can support, something that requires far more effort to achieve public buy-in in a multicultural society such as ours. Added to this, I’m hoping to help remove some of the impediments to technological advances frequently found in legislative and regulatory don’t-rock-the-boat thinking.

  • Kay Martin.

    Just a correction, John. Per your second paragraph, your personal interest (and that of many of us other “old timers”) goes back nearly TWO decades . My oh my, how the years fly by when you’re having fun….Thanks for drawing attention once again to this critical issue. Looking forward to your blogs.

    • John T.

      Yikes, Kay, caught me again!
      Kay Martin was on our Editorial Advisory Board back in the day. She and Paul Relis, CR&R VP, were largely responsible for the magazine’s focus on CTs and with Paul was a partner in getting the CT colloquy off the ground, She has continued her efforts as a member of the BioEnergy Producers Association Board, much of whose work will be featured in next week’s newsletter web log (I expend far too much effort to denigrate it with the term Blog). While I’m at it, I’d like to make up for an oversight by thanking the Wendy P. McCaw Foundation its generous sponsorship of the colloquy.

  • Lawernce K.

    John so glad to see that you finally admit that Recycling in this country is not working because the industry wants to keep it as it is. Maybe you would address what the problem is if you know or are you just a mouthpiece for the stagnant inefficient industry that is stranglehold by the three big companies?

    • John T.

      There are several issues here, the first of which is that many of our readers are subject to recycling mandates or policies set by the public’s elected officials, so it’s a subject to which we are going to devote the coverage it deserves. On the other hand I have made no bones about my feelings about exporting materials for distant–often offshore–destinations, effectively leaving their fate in the hands of others. What the magazine and I champion wholeheartedly is integrated solid waste management in which local authorities are able to choose solutions most appropriate to their capabilities. Moreover, in its support of ISWM, the magazine has been a persistent champion of WTE and EfW programs.
      Finally as to the mouthpiece comment, I’d like to invite you to take note of the total number of advertisements we’ve received from the “three big companies” over the 23+ years during which I’be been editor, a number that I am fairly certain (but will validate) stands at less than five.

  • John T.

    Sorry for the misinformation. It turns out that we’ve had ZERO ads from the combined resources of WM, Republic (Allied or BFI), Casella, Waste Connections, Veolia, etc.


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