Opinion Columns & Blogs

Burning carpet at Crows Landing poisons the air; it needs to stop

Covanta waste-to-energy plant on Fink Road near Crows Landing.
Covanta waste-to-energy plant on Fink Road near Crows Landing. aalfaro@modbee.com

The American Lung Association’s State of the Air Report says four of the most polluted metropolitan regions in the U.S. are in the San Joaquin Valley. Of those, Modesto-Merced ranked No.4 for short-term particle pollution and No.6 for annual-particle pollution.

Based on the number of unhealthy ozone or particle days, every county in the Valley – from Kern to San Joaquin and including Stanislaus – got an “F” grade in the report. These conditions contribute to the highest childhood asthma rate in the nation.

One contributor to the poor air quality is the Stanislaus Resource Recovery Facility operated by Covanta at the Fink Road landfill, part of the overburdened environmental justice area of west Stanislaus County. Such facilities are known to emit fine and ultrafine particulates and toxic heavy metals. When things like PVC carpet are burned, dioxins (a highly toxic substance) are also emitted.

People believe emissions from these facilities are tightly regulated. But particulate emissions are not monitored from stationary sources; they are monitored on a regional basis by looking at air quality in “attainment districts.”

Toxic metal and dioxin air emissions are monitored infrequently. During start-up and shut down of facilities they are not monitored, yet these times are when toxic emissions are greatest. Monitoring for these pollutants requires very expensive equipment for testing and not many labs are equipped to do it.

The Stanislaus incinerator processes 800 tons of solid waste per day. The reason there’s no meaningful recycling program in Modesto is that our local regulators have contracted to feed the beast.

Carpet is one of the typical bulky items sent to landfills or to incineration. But if designed right, carpet is highly recyclable.

In 2010, California passed the Carpet Stewardship Act to make carpet manufacturers establish a recycling program for carpet. Unfortunately, the industry had no incentive to make it work because the program is funded by consumer fees paid on the sale of carpet.

Using about $20 million per year in consumer fees, the industry created a program that increased recycling by 2 percent and meanwhile increased incineration of carpet by 5 percent. The carpet industry incinerates approximately 30 percent of the carpet its collects. Incinerating carpet results in some energy recovery. But compared to renewable energy (or energy from coal or nuclear generation), incineration has the highest capital costs, the highest operation and maintenance costs, and has the lowest capacity for output.

Recycling makes much better use of carpet waste by replacing the virgin nylon (or PET) used to make carpet. It would also create more jobs.

The Carpet America Recovery Effort is in charge of the stewardship program. They have done such a miserable job implementing the recycling program in California. CalRecycle, the state’s recycling agency, has found them to be out of compliance for three years in a row and is charging them $3.3 million in fines and penalties.

It’s time to remove CARE from the driver’s seat and make sure California’s carpet recycling program actually recycles carpet instead of burning it.

A bill in the California legislature – AB 1158 (Kansen Chu, D-San Jose) – aims to fix the program. If the carpet industry doesn’t succeed in removing language holding it accountable for specific rates of recycling by specific dates, this bill could help our children breathe a little easier.

John X. Mataka is involved in the Valley Improvement Projects and Grayson Neighborhood Council; Miriam Gordon is a San Francisco-based consultant with the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. They wrote this for The Modesto Bee.