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It’s been three weeks since a dispute between Republic Services, a private waste disposal company, and its sanitation workers concerning better pay, safety and benefits, halted all trash collection in the city of Chula Vista and threatened the public health and safety of citizens.
With trash haulers now back at work, those of us concerned with future rate hikes and the ongoing environmental impacts of an outdated waste management system are left wondering, “What’s next?”
While the current contract, negotiated in 2014 was a good one then, the city’s lack of leadership in the intervening years and reluctance to hold the company accountable has led, not only to failure to implement programs but also reduced the amount of leverage the city brings to the contract negotiating table in 2024.
But there’s good news.
We can take charge and design a waste management system that will continue to provide affordable services for Chula Vistans and good jobs for Republic’s workers as we transition to a future where trash disposal serves are part of a thriving economy powered by renewable and green energy.
Adopting regenerative principles, like “waste to energy” technology, prepares us for the future. This kind of technology, which uses steam to generate electricity, has been used successfully around the globe in Southeast Asia and Europe.
Here in the United States, biomass is part of Austin, Texas’ renewable energy portfolio and new “plastic to fuel” plants are coming online in California. These systems are viable and clean alternatives to landfills and fossil fuel energy generation.
“Biomass” takes what would typically go into the landfill and converts it into electricity, biochar and medical-grade distilled water. Biochar, is produced by heating biomass in the total or partial absence of oxygen.
It is a wonderful soil amendment with the ability to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it. Two of the byproducts of the “plastics to fuel” process (which recycles any type of plastic) are jet fuel and high-octane gasoline. The byproducts from both “waste to energy” systems could create multiple green revenue streams, from the sale of excess power to our neighboring cities, credits for carbon offset programs, and jet fuel to the Navy. Not to mention both “green” gasoline and electricity that could be used to power the city’s vehicle fleet.
The city recently said it will consider other alternatives, including doing its own trash-hauling when the contract with Republic expires in 2024. There are currently 50 city-owned acres available near the landfill, which can be used to connect the electricity generated by a biomass system to the grid. With the right leadership, it is entirely possible for the city to capture the opportunity for the benefit of Chula Vistans. With global investors and state and federal governments eager to support and finance green infrastructure development, these projects could be executed quickly and with no additional financial strain or risk to the city.
Now is the time to be proactive and bring innovation and community-wide collaboration with businesses, non-profits, school districts and government all taking part. Because we have a landfill, Chula Vista can be at the forefront of the regenerative movement where residents are empowered to recycle, compost and give new life to their waste. We, as Chula Vistans, living in the second-largest city in the county, can lead the transition to renewable energy generation and make an enormous positive impact on, not only, our economic and environmental health but that of the entire region.
Correction: This op-ed has been updated to reflect that it was written by Rudy Ramirez and Ruth Jordan. A previous version only identified Ramirez as the author.