The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to overhaul the way garbage is collected from tens of thousands of businesses and apartment complexes in what supporters described as an ambitious bid to put Los Angeles at the forefront of reducing landfill waste nationwide.
"This is really about environmental justice," said Councilman Jose Huizar, who backed the plan. "It's about moving the city to get away from landfills, to show the world that the second largest city in the country is doing its best to recycle and to improve the air quality in our great city."
The controversial plan pitted environmentalists and labor unions against business groups in a heated battle over an estimated $250-million market serving some 63,000 properties.
The new system will not affect single-family homes or apartment buildings with four units or fewer, which get their trash hauled by city workers. City officials plan to put the new system into effect by early 2017.
Labor and environmental groups argue the new plan is the best shot for Los Angeles to become a national leader in ramping up recycling and keeping waste away from landfills. Business groups say the new system will put small haulers out of business and ultimately drive up rates.
"The environmental benefits are subterfuge for an effort to organize an industry that the unions couldn't organize themselves," Central City Assn. of Los Angeles president and CEO Carol Schatz told The Times last week.
The Council voted 12 to 1 to adopt the new system, approving an ordinance that lays out the rules. Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who raised concerns about small businesses surviving under the new system, was the sole member to vote against the plan.
Councilman Mitchell Englander, who had also expressed worries about the plan, was absent for the Tuesday vote, along with Councilman Curren Price. Because at least one council member voted against it, the measure will require a second procedural vote next week.
Currently, landlords for businesses and apartments choose between competing businesses to haul their trash. Under the new "exclusive franchise" system, Los Angeles will be divided up into 11 zones. Haulers will bid for city contracts giving them the exclusive right to collect garbage in each zone.
The new system is hitched to environmental standards: To be eligible to win each zone, haulers would have to provide separate bins for recycling and use "clean fuel" vehicles, among other ecologically friendly requirements.
The plan is backed by environmentalists and labor groups, who say the system is the best way to help Los Angeles meet its goal of diverting 90% of its trash from landfills. Activists say the system will also mean fewer trucks crisscrossing city streets and safer conditions for workers in a dangerous industry.
Councilwoman Nury Martinez said the new system would be important for the Valley district she represents, which she said bore a disproportionate burden from landfills and trash haulers. Areas such as Sun Valley and Pacoima suffer from heavier truck traffic and air pollution as a result, she said.
"It's about time that we put a system in place, and we're going to protect families, communities and hold people responsible," Martinez said. After the vote, labor unions and environmental groups and their supporters cheered and led chants of "Si Se Puede" outside the meeting.
Business groups argue the same goals could be met without an "exclusive" system. For instance, the city could have set environmental standards for haulers, but allowed any business that qualified to continue operating, said Coby King, chairman of the board of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn.
Instead, King wrote in an email, the companies that win each zone will "essentially be monopolies, and as we know monopolies generally lead to higher prices and less service." He estimated that "close to 100" haulers would go out of business once the new system went into effect.
City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana recommended using such a "non-exclusive" system when the council started exploring the idea two years ago, saying it would maintain "an open, competitive marketplace" key to controlling prices. However, an environmental impact report recently prepared by the Bureau of Sanitation found that such a plan would not do as much to reduce air pollution.
A system that isn't exclusive "just doesn't address the truck routes," said Adrian Martinez, staff attorney for the environmental group Earthjustice. "Cities are going this way. This is a proven way to get more accountability in your waste system."
Besides its green rules, the new plan also includes a provision to prevent interruptions in trash collection. Garbage haulers must reach an agreement with workers to not picket or cause other work stoppages, according to the new ordinance.