By Signe Okkels Larsen

"There is so much (that is) recyclable out there. It's crazy," said Lee Carter, looking out from the mountain of trash he is standing on. The ground underneath us feels shaky because of the heavy bulldozers moving around.

Carter is operations supervisor at Simi Valley Landfill in Los Angeles County, operated by Waste Management Inc. He has been working at the landfill the last 25 years and has seen more trucks than any small kid could possible dream of. Up to 500 full-size trucks come and go everyday, to unload tons and tons of trash from all over LA.

"Think about, if of all that wasn't in there, how much trash we would have. Hardly anything," Carter said.

Of the 12 million tons that LA residents produce annually, as estimated in UCLA's Zero Waste Progress Report, about a quarter of that ends up in landfills. About 76 percent gets recycled or reused, which makes Los Angeles Number One in recycling among the ten largest cities in the United States.

And that is big progress. In 1990, just one-fifth of the garbage was recycled, according to data from the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation.

While many European countries in the late 90's introduced bans on putting different types of waste to landfills, like biodegradable or combustible waste, the U.S still relies on them heavily. LA is no different. This is because landfills are relatively cheap in America compared to Europe where land is scarcer.

However, the city is rapidly running out of landfill space, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find sites for new local landfills. The only alternative left is to send the trash by train to faraway landfills in the desert. This was the idea behind a $430 million-dollar project that Los Angeles County created back in 1991. But hauling the trash out to the desert is not a cheap solution, and the environmental consequences are questionable too, which is why the train plan has yet to be put in motion.

trash train

So far, LA's trash train is running nowhere. (Image courtesy of Nat Isaac, LA Bureau of Sanitation)

Meanwhile, LA has set ambitious garbage goals. Under the adopted RENEW LA Plan, by 2025, the city hopes to divert up to 90 percent of its trash from landfills. For now that plan is on track, but the ultimate goal of "zero waste" calls for new methods, said Eugene Tseng, a UCLA professor in recycling and waste management.

To reach a 90 percent diversion rate, the city will need to use advanced "waste-to-energy" technologies - or trash incineration - much more than it is doing today. There is just one problem. Incineration facilities have never been popular in America, and opposition is still strong.

"In the old days incinerators were not very well regulated, and people relate incinerators to smoke stacks, but that is so very different than what technology is today," said Tseng, one of the world's leading experts in waste management.

"There are a lot of people that are just inherently against incinerators, because they don't consider it recycling, in particular in California. But in the rest of the world incineration is actually considered a form of recycling."

Critics fear that using incineration could undermine efforts to reduce waste and increase recycling. Others suspect that burning trash will increase toxic emissions and worsen LA's already notorious bad air quality. Opposition or not, if the city wants to hit its "zero waste" goal, Tseng says some kind of incineration is inevitable. A lot of waste like soiled paper, Styrofoam and mixed materials like potato chips bags simply cannot be recycled or reused.

Where Do Angelinos Think Their Trash Is Going?

The Swedish Example

In Sweden, less than one percent of household waste ends up in landfills. Ninety-nine percent gets recycled in various ways, including incineration, which has made Sweden one of the world's top leaders in recycling. Half of the country's waste is burnt and turned into energy, producing heat for 810,000 households and electricity for 250,000 private houses.

"Anything that is combustible or organic is forbidden to be put in landfill," said Weine Wiqvist, the director of Avfall Sverige, the Swedish Waste Management and Recycling Association.

Sweden has become so dependent on the energy produced from waste that the country now needs to import trash from European neighbors. And to Sweden that is a win-win situation.

"When we import waste from other countries, which would otherwise have disposed at landfills, that is a good thing for the environment. At the same time, we reduce our dependency on oil and coal from other parts of the world, which Sweden would otherwise have had to import to much higher costs," Wiqvist said.

In Sweden, waste-to-energy incineration is seen as one on the country's green achievements and there is very little opposition, if any, to it, said Wiqvist.

"Some 40 years ago we debated over dioxins and emissions, but in Europe today there is no discussion at all about the environmental impact from energy-to-waste, and absolutely not in Sweden."

He acknowledges, nonetheless, that incineration is not an entirely green affair.

"You can't say it is 100 percent clean, because that would be a lie. But our facilities are well aligned with very strict European standards, and compared to other energy sources, waste-to-energy is just as clean."

Instead of composting, the green waste in Sweden undergoes what is called anaerobic digestion, which unlike composting doesn't require any energy to be processed, but rather creates energy like renewable biogas and high quality bio fertilizer for the agriculture sector. This is why Sweden has a separate system and bin for food waste only.

Los Angeles Sanitation Bureau, War on Waste: Can America Win Its Battle With Garbage? (1989), Interview with Nat Isaac, Los Angeles Sanitation Historian,,,,,

Not In My Term of Office

LA currently has three incinerator facilities, which process less than five percent of the city's solid waste, but these are all nearly three decades old and are considered technical dinosaurs by experts.

Countries like Japan have moved to a more advanced form of incineration called gasification. Instead of actually burning the trash, this newer technology uses oxygen and steam to convert the material into a gas that can be use to make electricity, fuels and other valuable products.

Community Swimming Pool in Japan

The swimming pool inside an advanced-waste-to energy facility in Japan (Image courtesy of Eugene Tseng)

In Japan, urban incinerators also often function as social hotspots. At the Toshima Incineration Plant in Tokyo, neighbors can swim in a pool heated by the energy from the gasification process, take a dip in a hot tub or work out in rooms lit by electricity generated from the incinerator.

And LA could do the same, if it weren't for the state Legislature, said Tseng.

"It is kind of in disarray. It is not really supportive of these alternative approaches," Tseng said.

Under California law, a maximum of 10 percent of the waste stream can be incinerated and still be counted for as recycling. Anything more is calculated as disposal, such as at landfills.

And this is something the city would like to see change.

"Under the state definition of what is considered recycling, waste to energy would not be considered recycling credit, and we would also not qualify for renewable energy credit if we move forward with waste to energy technology in this point of time," said Reina Pereira, senior environmental engineer and the city's project manager of the Solid Waste Integrated Resources Master Plan, also known as the Zero Waste Plan.

"The city is actively working with the state to have them recognize advanced waste-to-energy as recycling."

But the damage is already done, according to Tseng. LA has lost its position as a leader in waste management practices.

"I don't know how to say this, but we are actually kind of a laughing stock in the international community because of how we approach the managing of trash. That's really sad," he said.

"About 20 to 25 years ago I used to bring people to California to show them best managing practices. I have had to take them to other countries. That's the truth," said Tseng, who has travelled to state-of-the-art recycling and waste-to-energy facilities around the world.

The problem is not that nobody wants the facilities in their backyards. In both Sweden and Japan many incinerators are located in the middle of cities and are a part of the communities. The challenge in the U.S. is not a matter of proximity concerns, Tseng said.

"We jokingly refer to it as N-I-M-T-O-O, not in my turn of office. Because I want to get reelected, so I can't take the risk. It boils down to lack of political guts."

A billion-dollar Business

Because of recent initiatives to divert more trash away from landfills, a lot of America's recyclable materials are now shipped to Asian countries, with China being the biggest market for recyclables from the United States. About 42.7 million tons of recyclables were exported from all U.S. ports in 2013, according to numbers released by CalRecycle in 2014.

The End Destinations of Angelinos' Recyclables

Data from CalRecycle 2014

"Recycling is a commodity like everything else," said Marc Harismendy, operations manager at a material recovery facility in Azusa owned by Waste Management Inc., one of the country's largest trash for-profit companies.

"It's based on economy and demand."

More than 18 million ton of recyclables were exported from California ports in 2013, a fourfold increase since 1998, and all that trash was worth more than $7.5 billion, according to CalRecycle. More than half of the recyclables were shipped to China, where they are made into new products that are sold back to consumers worldwide.

The Types of Recyclables Crossing the Atlantic

Data from CalRecycle 2014

The reason why the city's recyclables are now travelling thousands of miles is quite simple: There are very few local markets for them, which is another barrier to achieving higher recycling rates.

"If we really want to improve recycling, we have to develop local manufacturing," said Tseng.

"During the recession the recycling markets went down, and we had to stockpile paper, metals and plastics. The only market that was still strong and continued was glass, because we have local glass manufacturing infrastructure."

Today, prices change week to week, depending on the overall economy and global demand. Cardboard can vary from $50 a ton during a recession to over $200 in good market times.

Back at the landfill, Lee Carter gets ready to have today's trash covered with another layer dirt.

"Every night, is has to be completely covered."