Recycling Resurfaces : An Old Idea Garners Renewed Enthusiasm
Earlier this month, the South El Monte City Council, under pressure from residents, scuttled a feasibility study on a waste-to-energy plant in the city. It was the fifth time this year that a proposal to build an incinerator in the San Gabriel Valley had been defeated or abandoned.
At its Sept. 2 meeting, the South El Monte council also voted to consider implementing a comprehensive recycling program as an alternative means of reducing the amount of waste entering local landfills.
This change in direction reflects an areawide movement as elected officials seek a less controversial option to trash-to-energy proposals.
The San Gabriel Valley Assn. of Cities’ Solid Waste Management Task Force has formed a subcommittee on recycling. At a task force meeting last week, state officials explained how to establish recycling programs in the association’s 31 member communities.
“We’ll enable every city, if they want to, to begin a program of recycling and source separation,” said Walnut Mayor Harvey Holden, chairman of the association’s Solid Waste Management Task Force. “Recycling has always been proposed, but it has never been taken this seriously.”
Although recycling emerged from the ecology movement of the 1970s, those familiar with the issue said the San Gabriel Valley could be among the first areas in the state where communities implement recycling more out of necessity than out of environmental concern.
“We have the most acute (waste) problem in the state,” said Robert Breusch, mayor pro tem of Rosemead and chairman of the subcommittee on recycling. “I think what we do here is going to be a bellwether for the rest of the state. What’s happening here is going to happen everywhere else in the next 10 to 12 years.”
But as they explore recycling, San Gabriel Valley cities must navigate through a morass of contradictory opinions on several key questions. There is widespread debate as to whether recycling should be voluntary or mandatory, how much of the trash now going to landfills could be diverted through recycling and whether sufficient markets will exist for recycled materials after they are extracted.
A major impetus for cities to develop recycling programs is the state Beverage Container Recycling Act, better known as “the bottle bill.” The law, which goes into effect Oct. 1, places a 1-cent deposit on soft drink and beer containers and requires that recycling centers be established within half a mile of stores that have more than $2 million a year in gross sales.
The bill also requires the state to use the money it gets from deposits on bottles that are not recycled to establish recycling programs. Proponents of recycling in the San Gabriel Valley hope that the bottle bill will serve as a springboard by raising interest in recycling to the same level it has reached in other areas of the state.
Although recycling programs have flourished in environmentally conscious bedroom communities in the San Francisco Bay area and the Westside of Los Angeles, only one San Gabriel Valley city, Claremont, collects trash at the curb for recycling.
“We’re environmental slobs compared to (Northern California),” said Wil Baca of the Hacienda Heights Improvement Assn., a member of the task force subcommittee on recycling. “In the northern part of the state, that (ecology) movement has never quit since Earth Day on. It’s in Southern California that we’ve had to reawaken that commitment, not in the public, but in the politicians.”
Proponents of recycling say that the comprehensive recycling of paper, bottles, cans and the composting of yard waste could cut in half the amount of garbage going into landfills.
Small Result Seen
But skeptics, such as William L. George, an environmental scientist with the county Solid Waste Management Department, said that although he supports mandatory recycling, he thinks that it will only reduce total waste by--at best--about 7%.
“Recycling cannot have the impact on the waste stream that refuse-to-energy can because you can burn so much more of the waste stream than you can recycle,” George said, adding that residential waste makes up only one-third of the 45,000 tons of garbage going into Los Angeles county landfills daily.
“Of that third, only 20% can be readily recycled,” he said. “That’s 3,000 tons a day. That’s if everybody in the county recycled everything. That’s if nobody threw away any newspapers and nobody threw away any cans, which isn’t going to happen. . . . (Even if it did) it wouldn’t be significant.”
Responded Baca: “The people that are saying you can only get 7% to 10%, when they say recycling, they’re talking about the Boy Scout approach. You have to get involved in serious recycling efforts and large quantities. You have to restructure the entire waste management industry.
“The grass-roots recyclers look at the entire waste stream. I can go out to the landfill and if you leave me out there for an hour with a rake and a pair of gloves, I’ll end up with only 20% that I don’t know what to do with.”
In New Jersey, which pioneered widespread recycling as a means of trash reduction, the amount of residential trash recycled was 14% of the total garbage collected, according to the state’s administrator of recycling.
Breusch said Baca and George represent “the two extremes of the spectrum,” and added that the subcommittee will listen to both men carefully before issuing recommendations.
“It’s very stimulating to hear these two argue,” Breusch said. “Here I am sitting in the middle of these two opinions. I think somewhere between the two lies the truth.”
Baca said the trend toward recycling represents growing public sentiment that a solution must be found to the waste management problem, but that waste-to-energy is not it. The county Solid Waste Management Department has been slow to realize this, he said, because it has been taken over by incineration proponents.
“They’ve been misguided for five years and we finally got through to them and showed them the error of their ways,” Baca said. “Now that we’ve showed them a different way, we need to get them to direct as much commitment and money to (recycling) as they did for incineration.”
Questions Value of Program
However, George questioned whether recycling is being oversold as a panacea to the landfill problem by opponents of incineration.
“If the public is not ready to accept refuse-to-energy, there are other options to pursue, but . . . we’re getting pretty close to the point where we’re either going to have to site new landfills or think of something else to do with it,” George said. “What that ‘something else’ is what everybody’s reaching for.
“I would think at some point in the future, refuse-to-energy is going to have to get another hard look.”
But before they give refuse-to-energy that second chance, several San Gabriel Valley cities intend to look closely at recycling.
“We’re running out of room (in landfills),” Breusch said. “It’s clear that waste-to-energy plants are not going to be accepted. It doesn’t matter how clean they are. What is doesn’t matter. What matters is what people perceive.”
Breusch’s subcommittee is studying recycling programs around the country to find the models that best suit their respective communities.
‘Very Personal Matter’
“Recycling is a very personal matter,” said Glendora Councilwoman Lois Shade, a member of the subcommittee on recycling. “It’s personal in that different cultural, different ethnic, different religious groups, people with different levels of education, people in industrial areas and bedroom communities are going to view the situation differently. Each community is going to have to view recycling based on the type of people they are.”
Among the options available to cities that establish curb-side (rather than drop-off) programs are mixed recycling, voluntary source separation and mandatory source separation.
Of the three, mixed recycling is the most convenient for those who create the garbage and the most expensive for those who must dispose of it. Customers place recyclables such as aluminum, glass and newspapers in a separate container from the rest of their trash. The materials are then sorted by a machine at a recycling facility.
Responsibility for Sorting
Under voluntary source separation, which is used in Claremont, responsibility for sorting reusable materials rests with the source of the refuse--the person who takes out the trash. Some cities encourage participation in the program by providing residents with three separate containers for their aluminum, glass and newspapers and by offering prizes to those who separate their recyclables.
As the name would suggest, mandatory source separation is identical to the voluntary program, except those who indiscriminately mix together their beer cans and Sunday papers are penalized. In some cities, offenders are assessed a surcharge on their trash collection bill; in others, sanitation workers simply refuse to pick up mixed trash.
California cities with voluntary source separation programs include Claremont, Burbank, Santa Monica, Berkeley, San Jose and El Cerrito. The City of Los Angeles has operated a voluntary source separation program in the San Fernando Valley and a mixed recycling program in the Westside and Pacific Palisades.
The costs of recycling programs vary from city to city. Many cities in California received start-up money from a state grant fund established in 1978. Net operating costs depend on the current market price for recycled materials and the means of collecting recyclables.
Costs for Program
In 1986, the curb-side recycling program in San Jose had a net cost of $28,295, after selling off the recycled materials and collecting a voluntary 50-cent-a-month surcharge from residents, according to Richard Gertman, the city’s recycling program’s manager. El Cerrito’s program, which offsets the cost of its curb-side collection service by operating a recycling center where residents drop off newspaper, bottles and cans, showed a profit of $13,000 in 1986, said Joel C. Witherell, director of the city’s community services department.
Although the rising costs of landfills will make recycling more cost-effective in the future, curb-side recycling programs will never be self-sufficient, Petersen said.
“The more convenient you make recycling, the more it costs,” said Gary M. Petersen, president of Ecolo-haul, which operates recycling programs in West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. “It’s very tough to make curb-side recycling profitable. I’ve never seen it and I’ve been in this business for 15 years.”
Degree of Cooperation Varies
Those who operate recycling programs say the degree to which residents are willing to participate often depends on their age, income, housing and education.
“It varies a great deal from area to area,” said Debra Baine of Santa Monica Recycle, which has operated a curb-side recycling program in that city for 5 1/2 years. “In the single-family home areas we have participation of 80%. In (apartments and condominiums), we average anywhere from 17% to 38%.”
Recycling is most popular, Baine said, among “single-family homes, more affluent neighborhoods, better educated people and senior citizens, who remember what it was like around World War II, when our society was much more conscious of recycling.”
Although Berkeley, El Cerrito and San Jose all report that about 60% of their residents voluntarily recycle, participation in Claremont, which began its program in 1982 with funds from a state grant, is less than 40%. Most observers consider Claremont--an affluent residential community that is the home of six noted colleges--to be as receptive to recycling as any city in the San Gabriel Valley.
“It’s a college town, they’re environmentally aware,” Breusch said. “That kind of town is going to take to (recycling) pretty easily. . . . In your more blue collar neighborhoods, it’s not such a high priority. Those people work long days. They don’t want to come home and sort through the trash.”
The prospect that the majority of residents in the San Gabriel Valley would refuse to recycle has led many public officials to believe that recycling must be compulsory to be successful.
“I would favor mandatory source separation because people just aren’t going to participate otherwise,” said Walnut Mayor Holden.
Councilman Jim Kelley of South El Monte, who recently inspected the voluntary programs in Berkeley, El Cerrito and San Jose, agreed.
“I would like to have the program they have in El Cerrito, except to have it mandatory,” Kelley said. “People are not going to want to do it until they don’t get their trash picked up.”
Claremont Mayor Judy Wright said that although mandatory recycling might be politically unpopular at first, constituents will accept it as the lesser of two evils.
“I think if it were presented to the voters as a choice between waste-to-energy and mandatory source separation, I have a feeling that mandatory source separation would come out on top,” Wright said.
Baca said he believes that the public would support mandatory recycling, but he doubts that many city councils have the courage to impose it.
“The citizenry is really willing and able to take on that challenge,” said Baca, who serves as a non-voting member on the Solid Waste Task Force’s subcommittee on recycling. “It’s generally the weak-kneed public official or city council person who is afraid he won’t be elected if he makes the wrong decision.
"(Politicians) harbor great political fears that if they’re the first ones to suggest (mandatory recycling), they’ll be run out of office. A lot of those fears have been fanned by proponents of incineration. They’ve been successful at brainwashing the politicians.”
Baca added that there may be some cities that would like to start comprehensive recycling programs, but don’t have the finances to do it. But whether the problem with local cities is a lack of resolve or resources, both can be remedied by state legislation, he said.
“Our statewide politicians have a better vision of what the problem is and what the solutions might be, and I think they see the paralysis of the local governments,” Baca said. “We need a state-mandated approach. There are many cities that can’t do anything without the state. They need access to that money stream.”
One legislator who agrees with Baca is Assemblyman Charles M. Calderon (D--Alhambra), who has a bill pending for the next legislative session that would institute mandatory recycling throughout the state. The recycling programs would be financed by a charge for trash dumped at landfills.
“Certainly, I think there will be some opposition among parts of the public, because the burden is going to be on them to recycle,” Calderon said last week at his Sacramento office. “I think if we can educate the public that we don’t have any alternatives left, we can overcome those objections.
“We’re running out of sites for landfills. It’s no longer a viable means of addressing our waste problem. What we need to do is deal with this serious problem before it becomes a crisis. We don’t want to get into a position where we’re floating our trash on barges off the coast of Santa Monica.”
Calderon’s reference to garbage barges stems from a much-publicized incident earlier this year. A barge loaded with tons of rotting refuse from the Islip, N.Y. made a circuit down the Atlantic Seaboard and around the Caribbean searching unsuccessfully for a place to unload its undesirable cargo.
Proponents of recycling point to the garbage barge incident as a pungent portent of the fate awaiting cities that do not find alternatives means of dealing with waste before their landfills reach capacity.
‘Reality Is Setting In’
“The garbage barge was the best thing that ever happened to us,” said Petersen of Ecolo-haul.
“The reality is starting to set in. . . . We’re about four or five years behind the East Coast. We’re headed for the same thing, but it’s going to be worse. We’re the trash capital of the nation.”
In addition to offering a glimpse of California’s future waste management problems, the situation on the East Coast also provides a potential solution, Petersen said.
In April, New Jersey became the first state to institute mandatory source separation recycling. Connecticut and Rhode Island have followed.
“Our experience is that if you have mandatory recycling and you have convenient and reliable collection service and you have a good educational program, you can get 80% to 90% participation,” said Mary Sheil, administrator of New Jersey’s office of recycling.
Under New Jersey’s program, cities and towns are responsible for enforcing mandatory source separation, which most do by refusing to pick up trash if recyclables are mixed. “They don’t have very many problems,” Sheil said. “Most people want their garbage picked up.”
Difficult to Duplicate
However, Sheil said the success of the New Jersey program could not be immediately duplicated in areas that do not have an established recycling system.
“We were in a real good condition to implement mandatory since we’d had a state voluntary law since 1982,” Sheil said. “We’d had five years’ experience educating people about recycling. If somebody’s going to go into recycling from ground zero, it helps to lay some of that groundwork before you slap on a mandate.”
Breusch said he favors such a gradual approach to initiating recycling in the San Gabriel Valley.
“Immediate mandatory (regulations) would be asinine,” he said. “You don’t have the public support. You have to educate the public. It has to be phased in. But eventually, we’ll have to have mandatory.”