First & Spring

L.A.'s messy ways now on city radar

L.A. officials are fielding a growing number of calls about trash in the streets

The holidays are a time for giving, and in Los Angeles, many have the good fortune to provide generously for others.

But once everybody receives their new stuff, a lot of the old stuff gets pitched onto the street. In the final days of the year, many of L.A.'s streets and sidewalks are littered with discarded furniture, mattresses, oversized televisions and other household objects.

Unfortunately, trash in this city isn't a problem confined to the holidays. According to a recent report, the streets are so untidy on a year-round basis that the situation threatens the city's brand. So perhaps it's time to pose the question to the decision makers at City Hall: What's with all the Angelenos who leave their stuff outside and never look back?

I've had that thought quite a few times on my commute, whether I'm traveling by car, bus or on foot. In my travels, I've seen carpeting, car fenders, plastic cups, broken sinks, cracked mirrors, food wrappers, front doors and plenty of other items. The larger objects are known in City Hall parlance as bulky items. You can call somebody at the city's 311 hotline to get rid of them.

A lot of people aren't doing that. But L.A.'s high-level officials aren't prepared to conclude that Angelenos are simply sloppy or lazy. City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, who commissioned the "livability report" on L.A.'s trash-strewn streets, says the issue is complicated. But he does think L.A. has acquired some very bad habits when it comes to garbage.

"There's something systemic that has occurred in the city that didn't happen overnight," he said. "It's happened over time."

Don't I know it. On my street in Echo Park, I called 311 about a television last week. Now there's a couch with a piece of luggage on top. A neighbor who recently moved out of L.A. told me she's been feeling a bit homesick. I consoled her by mentioning the toilet across the street from her old place. It's been there three weeks. Guess I'm going to have to call.

Volkswagen shot a commercial several years ago at the end of my block depicting two guys in a hatchback who pick up a couch, only to discover it's too smelly to keep. At the end of the spot, they toss it back out on the street.

Statistics from the Bureau of Sanitation raise the possibility that people are getting more responsible, more fed up or both. The number of calls fielded by the agency regarding objects left in the street, sidewalk or alley climbed from 239,109 in 2009 to 350,511 last year.

At the same time, however, the number of tons of discarded items picked up has stayed roughly the same. Sanitation officials believe that's because the products being tossed out are being made with lighter materials. They also contend scavengers are taking a lot of the heavier stuff, like metal.

So who's making all these calls to the city? Is it the owner of a couch looking to have it picked up on trash day? The angry neighbor who, after weeks of pent-up frustration, calls to vent about the dumped couch next door?

Answer: The city has no idea. Sanitation officials don't track bulky item calls by the type of complaint. Put another way, the city doesn't have the data at this point to tell you how many Angelenos are carelessly leaving their stuff.

That should change next summer, when a new data system is set to go online, said Enrique Zaldivar, who heads the sanitation agency. But there are plenty of other hurdles to cleaning up the discards.

The city has to field several types of crews for bulky-item duties. Under state law, tires have to be disposed of one way. E-waste, like computers, requires different handling. Abandoned cans of paint and motor oil are treated as hazardous materials. And workers have to follow time-consuming, court-imposed protocols when tackling objects in or near homeless encampments.

Mayor Eric Garcetti didn't come to the phone on the trash topic. But a spokeswoman sent an email saying the mayor put an extra $5 million in the budget this year to send teams of workers to the most trash-strewn spots in the city. "Cleaning our neighborhoods is a cornerstone of Mayor Garcetti's back to basics agenda," wrote spokeswoman Vicki Curry.

Councilman Curren Price, whose South L.A. district is one of the areas hardest hit by dumping, thinks a big portion of the problem is caused by people outside the city who cut costs by unloading their construction debris, auto parts or other waste in low-income neighborhoods. There are also plenty of people, he said, who simply don't know they can call 311, or use the city's 311 phone app, to have items hauled away.

"We have to remind people what the resources are, what their responsibilities are," he said.

Price thinks the city should look at increasing the hours for the 311 service hotline, which closes shop at 4:45 p.m., or possibly a new publicity campaign for the city's pickup services. After 18 months in office, he and his staff have racked up an array of illegal dumping horror stories: hundreds of hypodermic needles in an alley, piles of tires, medical waste from a dental office and six abandoned boats, some filled with couches and other garbage.

The problem isn't limited to low-income neighborhoods. Councilman Tom LaBonge, whose district covers tony areas stretching from Silver Lake to Sherman Oaks, has a small retinue of staffers charged with finding and sometimes picking up detritus in his district. His staffers have gloves with them, in case they come across something that needs removing.

LaBonge once thought of becoming a garbage collector, back in the day when the guys rode on the backs of trucks. Now, as a councilman, he works on getting furniture, mattresses and other cast-off items off the streets. But he chooses not to ponder why so many residents casually dump their stuff at the curb.

"I can't waste time wondering why they do it," LaBonge said. "I just got to get it picked up. That's my philosophy."

@DavidZahniser

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