Can Long Beach Go Greener Without a Trash Incinerator?

Gabriela Medina

One of the most effective ways in which Long Beach reduces trash is by burning it in a trash-to-energy incinerator rather than taking it to a landfill. Will the city will be greener in the future under a proposed state law?

In February, State Assemblywoman and environmentalist Cristina Garcia, D-Bell Gardens, introduced Assembly Bill 1857. This addresses eliminating diversion credits to Long Beach for burning trash in incinerators, as she claims that the “plant” results in major pollution. As an advocate for environmental justice, she stands in solidarity with authoring and supporting myriad bills to protect communities that are impacted by pollution-related health consequences.

Councilman Al Austin asked members to prepare information for a study session about the plant’s future at the Long Beach City Council meeting held on March 22. The session will consider the feasibility for the city’s partner, Southeast Resource Recovery Facility (SERRF) to continue to operate – as it is too expensive. In alliance with SERRF, the legislative agenda has stated “efforts to develop an incentive program or foster innovative partnerships that will promote sustainability, recycling and beneficial reuse of municipal solid waste.”

For the past three decades, the city has partnered with SERRF which is known as a “waste-to-energy plant.” SERRF has used incineration to reduce the amount of waste and the consumption of natural resources. At the Port of Long Beach west of the Terminal Island freeway, an industrial crane with a claw at the end is used to hoist enormous quantities of garbage, which is then placed into a chute leading to an incinerator that burns it at extremely hot temperatures that can range up to about 1,500 degrees.

The heat that is produced is used to generate steam which then becomes electricity and is powerful enough to power approximately 35,000 homes each year.

Statistics in 2019 have indicated that the average resident in Long Beach discards an estimated of four pounds of trash each day and around 1,400 pounds a year. Overall Long Beach can generate 368,000 tons annually. According to recent a report, SERRF has obtained nearly 275,000 tons of city solid waste each year.

As California and Long Beach have implemented a “zero waste” plan since 2019, SERRF’s future remains uncertain. The plant has an aging infrastructure since it has been operating for 35 years. It would need about $60 million in upgrades to continue running the incineration through the next 20 years. With significant drops in energy sales since 2019, expenses for continuing SERRF are in question.

The city has worked with Covanta, a waste management company, for the operation of the facility, but its contract with Long Beach is set to expire on June 30, 2024.

During the meeting held in March, East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice submitted a letter asking to be a part of the study session, as they are arguing that the city should indeed provide costs towards zero waste solutions.

Whitney Amaya, the zero-waste community organizer, stated, “Many of the communities surrounding the incinerator, including communities outside of our city, are predominantly low-income communities of color who are disproportionately burdened by several polluting industries from oil and gas to the goods movement. Therefore, the goal of the study session should instead be focused on community-rooted, localized zero-waste alternatives to plan a just transition away from SERRF and fossil fuels.”



Unlike the United States, few European countries have land fill dumps. Europe either recycles their trash or generates electricity by incinerating their trash. Incinerator waste gases are closely monitored and scrubbed of pollutants. Disposing of trash in a land fill only pushes the problem to the next generation that must then deal with the greenhouse gases generated from decomposing trash underground in an anaerobic environment. There should be more, not fewer, permitted and monitored incinerators in the U.S.

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