View PDF of this article.
AB 32 AND THE WASTE MANAGEMENT SECTOR
California Recycling's Place in Greenhouse Gas Reduction
California's waste and air quality agencies, the California
Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) and the California Air Resources Board (CARB), are
collaborating on two significant pieces of environment law. One is a required 2013 update to the Scoping Plan of
Global Warming Act Solutions Act of 2006, Assembly Bill (AB) 32, and the other is the AB 341 "Mandatory Commercial
Recycling" implementation plan. Collaboration between agency staff has produced a series of Technical Papers, all
available on-line and the subject of repeated stakeholder workshops. The agencies are rolling out a complex and
crucial suite of multi-agency regulations and policies that are already having a profound impact on our state's
social, environmental, and economic well-being.
This narrative is intended to explore the laws, regulations,
and policies at the nexus of waste and air quality, at a moment when our oversight agencies are struggling with
these issues and asking for stakeholder input. We provide a singular perspective, seeking a pathway through a
virtual tangle of agency interpretations and policies while always returning to the underlying "letter of the law."
This process of teasing apart the current status is necessary to establish a defensible oversight of California's
waste management sector while facilitating its AB 32 greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals.
When Laws Collide
AB 32 crosses agency lines of purview, requiring each
emissions-generating sector to find ways to reduce GHG emissions. the Waste Management Sector certainly provides
ample opportunity for improvement. It requires a degree of coordination between laws, regulations, and policies to
a degree seldom attempted by the state's regulatory bodies. The relationship between the AB 32 Scoping Plan
revision, AB 341 implementation, the California Low Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS) and the Cap and Trade program is
indeed complex. When waste management and air quality standards collide, the underlying tenants provide a
check-and-balance mechanism allowing us to test the validity of policies. Current "business as usual" practices do
not pass the test:
· The legal
definition of Recycling in California Public Resources Code (PRC) §40180 clearly identifies the steps
necessary to complete the process of recycling: if a material sourced from waste is collected, sorted, cleaned,
treated, and reconstituted into a raw material ready for reuse or remanufacturing, that material has been
"recycled". Upon completion of this defined process, the material is removed from the legal onus of being
considered a "waste" under state law. If no documentation is required by the regulators to prove where segregated
materials have gone and that the recycling process has been completed, the material has not been "recycled" in
accordance with California law.
· AB 341 requires
Commercial Waste Generators (businesses, agencies, and multi-family residential) to "arrange for recycling
services", presupposing that the outcome will actually be recycling as defined by code. Since no
recycling process end-point can be proven in California's recycling industry, AB 341 requires commercial waste
generators to adopt a deficient system with no assurance that the legally mandated outcome will result.
§40180 is a technology neutral statute defining the recycling process. The code does not state
how the last step, "reconstituting", is to be accomplished, only that the result meets market specifications
for remanufacturing. The lack of in-state examples of reconstituting approaches found in use globally does not
justify placing artificial restrictions on the types of technologies that can be cleanly and economically deployed
to expand California's legal recycling infrastructure.
· The reduction of
GHG emissions mandated by AB 32 requires application of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) methods using either direct
documentation or demonstrably accurate modeling to judge which pathways provide the best hope of meeting GHG
reduction goals. If emissions data are not available and/or cannot be defensibly extrapolated for each step in a
pathway, LCA cannot be performed. When the Waste Management Sector collects, sorts, cleans, treats, and
reconstitutes a material to accomplish recycling, GHGs generated for each step along the recycling pathway needs to
be identified to meet the standards pertinent to updating the AB 32 Scoping Plan.
GHG Targets for the Waste Management Sector
California's intention is to develop "low-carbon, economically
sustainable industries, technologies, and strategies that align with the state’s long-term and integrated energy,
waste, and environmental policy objectives." This is the ultimate metric against which to measure state
implementation methods and policies for the Waste Management Sector. Moreover, these same goals reflect a global
Circular Economy imperative to "close the loop" in waste management.
It is generally known how much of what waste is diverted from
or disposed to landfills, yet less attention has been paid to how it gets from source to destination. For
recyclable materials or "recyclates", the modes and distances of transport to reach destinations are even less
clear. That reconstituting facility at recycling's end-point is too often out of state, or out of country. An LCA
basis can clarify optimal pathways between waste generation through recyclate reprocessing, but must have reliable
data and may require some form of manifest to be prepared and submitted to the state. Localization will drive down
transport distances and incrementally reduce GHGs, but has to be measured against the current status quo. This
management process can spur infrastructure investment by identifying local areas of specific recyclate abundance
that lack sufficient reprocessing capacity and diversity. Repeated LCA tracking by state agency oversight
constitutes a wise and appropriate use of funds.
Understanding the Recycling Pathway
Attention to terms helps: a recyclate is a material
segregated from the waste stream for the purpose of recycling. Recyclates are materials that are at least
assumed to be recyclable. To reconstitute a recyclate as the law requires for completion of the
process is to "build up again from parts; reconstruct; to change the form, character, function or organization."
California's recycling statute is technology neutral. It does not specify how reconstituting is to
occur. PRC §40180 states:
"Recycle" or "recycling" means the process of
collecting, sorting, cleansing, treating, and reconstituting materials that would otherwise become solid waste, and
returning them to the economic mainstream in the form of raw material for new, reused, or reconstituted products
which meet the quality standards necessary to be used in the marketplace. "Recycling" does not include
transformation, as defined in Section 40201.
Is a recyclate a waste? After all, it was a
waste before it was segregated from the waste stream to be recycled. This point in the law is confusing, but a
strict reading of the code would indicate that a material's legal status changes once it has been reconstituted at
the end of the recycling pathway. At this point, it has effectively been removed from the legally defined "waste"
category. Whatever percentage of that recyclate that can be reconstituted into market-ready raw material becomes a
"non-waste", while whatever residual generated from that last step remains waste to be either discarded or
once again segregated for further recovery by the reconstituting facility. This iterative generation and
reprocessing of discards is an underpinning of the "cradle to cradle" concept of a Circular Economy, and should be
At present, there is no requirement for documentation that
tracks where recyclates go. Once they are sorted, measured, and the "recycled" bill sent to CalRecycle for payment,
the trail ends. Without some form of manifest, there can be no proof that the legal process of recycling has
actually been completed. We believe such tracking documentation should be submitted by waste management services
operating as "recyclers", and certainly by all those intending to provide recycling services to Commercial
Waste Generators in compliance with AB 341. For the state to not require proof of completion from recyclers, yet
require Commercial Waste Generators to use such services is to open the state to legal challenge, and may
place waste generators in a very untenable risk position for their own enterprises.
Not all of the recyclable tonnage brokered as recycled can
actually be recovered as raw material and made ready for remanufacturing: paper gets soiled and its fibers wear
out; some kinds of plastic are not suited for type-to-type recycling; toxic cleaning products become mixed with
food waste. If one hundred tons of "recyclates" are brokered from a materials recovery facility (MRF) to a
reconstituting facility, and only 90 tons are actually reconstituted, then the amount recycled is 90 tons with 10
tons of waste remaining.
In addition, when we can't tell how much was recovered or how
much was destroyed or determine how far recyclates were shipped, we cannot identify the GHGs being generated
throughout the recycling pathway, and thus cannot with certainly manage that pathway to reduce GHGs over
Reconstituting vs. Remanufacturing
We have established that regardless the technology
used, "reconstituting facilities" process recyclates that have been collected, sorted, cleaned, and
pre-treated. Remanufacturing facilities use those non-waste, reconstituted raw materials; remanufacturing plants do
not process a waste feedstock because that raw material has been "recycled" according to law. Lack of
understanding in characterizing and separating operations that effect "reconstituting" from those designed for
"remanufacturing" is a pervasive underlying problem, complicated by the fact that the entire processing pathway
including remanufacturing can actually occur in one continuous processing train. More commonly, there are
discrete stages and the plants that reconstitute are separate from the facilities that accomplish remanufacturing.
Yet if different metrics (including GHG accounting by LCA) are to be applied to the different stages of the
Circular Economy, it is imperative that we be able to tell those stages apart.
The agencies note that "…in general, there are a number of
overarching challenges to increased recycling including: lack of sufficient domestic recycling infrastructure to
remanufacture recycled materials, insufficient markets for recycled materials, and the relatively low cost of
landfilling which adversely impacts the economics of recycling." Attending to this "lack of sufficient recycling
infrastructure" should place the focus more on the need for operations designed to reconstitute recyclates,
than on development of additional sorting and collecting operations or facilities that remanufacture using
recycled materials. Were California to expedite development of the localized capacity for reconstituting
recyclates to the receiving specifications for remanufacturing, the raw materials would readily enter the
Composting and Anaerobic Digestion
The draft agency plans state that "GHG emissions reductions
from these activities [referring to composting and anaerobic digestion, or AD, operations] would occur due to
avoided landfill emissions, displacement of fossil fuel with biogas, and reduction in synthetic fertilizer and
water use." Staff's premise here is that both composting and AD operations for conversion of organic recyclates to
raw materials (organics recycling per code) will inherently generate less GHG impact than landfilling for any one
amount of organic waste. This might seem sound if the emissions from a landfill are assumed to be less controllable
than emissions from contained conversion systems.
Yet organics that provide an acceptable feedstock for
composting and for all the various forms of digestion can arise from all sectors of our economy, encompassing urban
wastes, agricultural and forest residuals, industrial by-products and virgin purpose-grown crops. It is
unreasonable to simply assume everything going into a compost heap or a digester would have otherwise ended up in a
It is also off-target to think that there will be no
significant increase in GHG emissions as the aggregation and transport routes and methods change. Feedstock
sourcing will be dependent on availability and proximity. Even if the composting and / or digestion systems are
literally located at a landfill, the types, sources and diversity of feedstock will not be the same as what
was destined for disposal.
As California increases its reconstituting infrastructure, the
distance may be expected to decrease from a source of materials suitable for reprocessing to a facility that can
accept and reconstitute those recyclates. Discounting as irrelevant the GHG emissions associated with transport of
materials during the recycling pathway by assuming the landfilling alternative was "more negative", produces an
unsupportable basis for assessment..
Municipal Solid Waste Thermal Technologies
Nothing about California's recycling law dictates how each
step in that pathway is to be accomplished. PRC §40180 establishes a performance standard, not
a prescriptive standard and does not restrict methods as long as the results meet market specifications.
Other statutes, regulations, and policies have been layered on the entire waste management sector, but what
constitutes recycling remains relatively straightforward, and thermal technologies are one more way to complete
recyclate reconstituting. Agency staff simply stating that one method or another of completing that legal pathway
is not currently accepted as "recycling" does not change the underlying law.
Agency draft plans define "three main types of MSW Thermal
systems being used worldwide", then provide only two systems examples (direct combustion and gasification), adding
one additional refuse derived fuel (RDF) example for "the use of MSW (or components of MSW) as a supplemental along
with conventional fossil fuel." This last example is not a "thermal system" at all, but simply a method for use of
MSW in "manufacturing" energy.
The agency's plans neglect the simplest form of thermal energy
application in commercial use in California; drying is a nearly-universal and crucial step in many recycling
pathways when reclaiming benefit from waste. Drying is also one of the most energy-intensive and thus
emissions-intensive stages. The plans also neglect thermal recovery of foundation chemicals in the form of gas,
liquids, and/or solids. Thermochemical breakdown of MSW-sourced molecular structures into a lower molecular weight
synthesis gas (syngas) in particular lends itself to recovery of constituents.
Lack of knowledge regarding technical options should
never result in a blanket policy of curtailment of possibilities. The current CalRecycle stance seems to be,
"We don't know enough about that approach to completing the recycling pathway, so we won't permit it." This is in
stark contrast to the CARB's own approach, exemplified by the production methods assessment mechanism of the Low
Carbon Fuel Standard (LCFS): "We don't know enough about that pathway to low carbon fuels, so please explain it in
detail." Waste sourced feedstock certainly can be thermally converted to low carbon fuels, and each LCFS pathway of
that nature that is certified then documents one more legal means of completing recycling using waste
Thermally reconstituting recyclates is simply one more method
of completing the series of processing stages within a recycling pathway. If and to the degree that that iterative
processing pathway ends by producing a "raw material ready for reuse or remanufacturing," the technology-neutral
language of the existing law deems this to be "recycling."
How that raw material is then put to use is only pertinent to
the recycling pathway to the degree that remanufacturing specifications dictate reconstituting parameters.
The recycling law similarly does not differentiate between types of remanufacturing, or even include
remanufacturing in the recycling pathway. It therefore cannot set arbitrary prescriptive boundaries on how the
reconstituting stage meets the market specifications of that next remanufacturing stage.
GHG reductions through improved cleanliness and energy
efficiency of transport and processing incremental to recycling may prove more significant than any after-the-fact
emissions management strategy. Assessment of process efficiency must incorporate infrastructure transport data.
This point is being proven by example, as entire waste management fleets are converted to LNG and biomethane from
older diesel fuel usage.
Below, we offer a more thorough breakdown of thermal
processing methods, all of which are in some way represented within California and all of which find applicability
in processing MSW fractions:
Table 1: Thermal Processing Categories
exposure to kinetic energy via grinding, compression / extrusion, radiant heat, forced air / steam
or other energy source.
dried to meet the operational specifications of the next "reconstituting" process
High-energy radiation excites molecular structure, progressively causing first drying
then cellular breakdown. Includes Radio Frequency.
materials are degraded and sterilized, increasing surface area and reducing resistance to
Application of external or internal heat sufficient to cause off-gassing which may be
used to power system, leaving a carbon char (Bio-Char, or Bio-Coal).
density is increased and volume decreased, improving transport cost/benefit, reconstituting to raw
material for making biochar / bio-coal.
External heat source, little O2, no combustion: allothermic (requires outside force)
& endothermic (absorbs energy); produces varying amounts of solid, liquid and
degraded to char, liquid and gaseous specifications for remanufacturing as alternatives to
petroleum-sourced foundation chemicals.
After start-up, driven by self-generating heat. Minimal (sub-stoichiometric) O2, minimal
syngas combustion: autothermic & exothermic. Produces ash/char, gas.
degraded to primarily gaseous raw materials, to specifications for remanufacturing as alternatives
to petroleum-sourced foundation chemicals
4th state of matter; all molecular structures dissociated. Extreme internal application
of thermal / electrical energy source. Produces small molecular weight gases.
structures reduced to smallest gaseous constituents, ready for direct reuse and/or as raw material
alternatives to petroleum-sourced foundation chemicals
Hydrothermal processing: water above critical temperature (374°C) and pressure (217 atm).
Other liquids can be energy carrier; dissociates molecular structures.
thermal degradation of large organic molecules, ready for direct reuse and/or as raw material
alternatives to petroleum-sourced foundation chemicals
Direct Combustion /
present, exothermic (releases energy), allowed to proceed to full destruction, "render to ash".
Includes Direct-Coupled Fluidized Bed gasification (FB).
conversion to heat for power production, rendering to ash all residual non-combustible fractions.
Minimal molecular recovery.
Rather than make a blanket statement that only "combustion and
supplemental fuel systems are in commercial use in California" it should be recognized that
commercialization itself represents a continuum. State resources would be well spent in documenting examples
along the entire thermal and commercial continua of MSW recycling.
Disposal vs. Recovery
CalRecycle and CARB staff have adequately described in-state
landfilling and accompanying GHG emissions at each landfill site, but the approach does not lend itself to LCA
comparison of alternatives to landfilling. Collection and conversion of methane-rich gases from a landfill
certainly should be increased both in number and in technical efficacy. Yet to reduce emissions, it is the
encompassing waste management infrastructure that needs full state attention; landfill site specific solutions only
address one crucial aspect. Support for waste transport fleet conversion to clean-burning low-carbon fuels should
be dramatically increased, especially where fuels can be generated from on-site emissions.
Recyclates must in some way be intercepted between generation
and final disposal and diverted to localized reprocessing facilities. This will reduce the cumulative distance
between waste generation sources, recycling infrastructure plants, and remanufacturing/reuse facilities for final
re-entry into the marketplace.
If all MSW processing for materials recovery occurred at
landfill sites, and if all materials collected, sorted, cleaned, and treated could indeed be matched with
appropriate reconstituting technologies at each landfill-based complex, the GHG metrics would cancel out. Siting
MRFs imbedded within the routing of the source-to-landfill routing heuristics and even at or near landfills has
become a standard municipal / industrial practice. Plants necessary to reconstitute those collected, cleaned, and
pre-treated recyclates must similarly be integrated within the existing waste management routing infrastructure to
minimize transport GHGs.
Each GHG reduction comparison must stand on the merits of its
own life cycle data, including transport related impacts. As an extreme example of this difficulty, consider the
hypothetical GHG emissions resulting from local landfill disposal of low-grade, difficult-to-recycle waste plastics
when compared to trans-oceanic shipment of those same polymers to Asian reprocessing facilities.
California has worked long and hard to "de-industrialize" and
now reaps the dubious results of pushing critical reconstituting and remanufacturing industrial development out of
the state, and out of the country. With this on-going abhorrence of placing industry where we as a society have to
actually acknowledge its existence comes lack of direct control over the industrial cleanliness and loss of the
economic benefits such an infrastructure maintains. This is a trend we MUST reverse, and full recognition and
accounting of the global costs of GHG generation is a good place to start. CalRecycle's stated mantra is that
California must own its own waste. With ownership comes responsibility.
California has a relatively clear and concise legal
description of how something we throw away can legally be turned into something we once again need. That encoded
recycling pathway definition is clearly and intentionally based on performance, rather than reliance on
prescriptive standards. There are constant and deeply lobbied attempts to overlay the existing law with such
prescriptive criteria, to push the socio-economics of waste management and resource recovery to benefit one or
another smaller minority, and to suit the arbitrary and unscientific assumptions of the current cadre of agency
staff. Far enough: if you don't like a law, then work to change it. But until that law is changed, the
agencies are under oath to uphold it. We need to hold our waste management and resource recovery agencies to this
test: does the existing and proposed policy adhere to the letter and intent of the law?
CalRecycle and the CARB have a marvelous opportunity right now
to shift California's Waste Management Sector from prescriptive, restrictive, and unscientific resource management
to a wholly consistent, objective, and performance based approach. The CARB's implementation of the Low Carbon Fuel
Standard uses just such an approach, and where low carbon fuels can be made from waste-sourced feedstock is a prime
example of proper oversight and certification of recycling. Yet even this certification process has fallen to the
unsupportable assumptions at the heart of CalRecycle's administrative guidance. Lack of knowledge or adequate data
to allow proper Life Cycle Assessment is no excuse for passing off assumptions as fact.
Associated Documents and Commentary
Teru's comments to the CalRecycle on its draft
Waste Management Sector Plan.
Los Angeles County Integrated Waste Managment Task Force comments to the CalRecycle on its draft Waste Management Sector Plan.
© Teru Talk by JDMT, Inc 2013. All rights
reserved. You are free to reprint and use
this article as long as no changes are made to its content or references and credit is given to the author,
Michael Theroux. http://www.terutalk.com