95% Participate in Target Neighborhood : S.D. Curbside Recycling Seems to Have Magic Touch

Times Staff Writer

Trash is a messy business. It’s smelly and bulky and frightening to futurists, who worry that neither the land nor the money will exist to properly rid ourselves of garbage in coming years.

Trash breeds particular fear in San Diego. Ninety percent of the city’s trash is now disposed of at the Miramar landfill--which is scheduled to close in 1995.

As city planners search for options to better dispose of San Diego garbage, a concept that optimists equate with magic is being waved like a wand in University City.

The magic?



In this case, it’s curbside recycling, and this is how it works:

Every Friday Linda Saxon, a homemaker who lives in University City with her husband and two children, takes the trash out. The method is hardly conventional. The city has supplied the Saxons, and 20,000 others in University City, with three plastic containers.

One is for newspapers, one for glass and bottles (preferably not broken, although broken will do) and one for cans, aluminum or tin. All remaining trash is stored in garbage cans, just as it is throughout the city.


By 9 a.m. Friday, a quartet of trucks has driven by the Saxon’s house. One truck picks up “regular” trash and heads to the landfill. One truck picks up glass, another newspaper, still another aluminum and tin. An armada of trucks seems anything but cost-effective. Still . . .

“I think it’s wonderful,” said Saxon. “We think the program is absolutely fantastic. We’re just happy San Diego is doing something--finally--about recycling.”

City officials argue that San Diego is ahead of many cities in the country. Mick Gammon is recycling program manager for the City of San Diego, which plans to establish a curbside program in Oak Park (between 54th Street and College Avenue) Jan. 12. Gammon said that Eastern cities, largely out of necessity, are ahead of most of the West in the pioneering of recycling.

The Landfill Crunch

“They’ve been feeling the landfill crunch back there for years,” Gammon said. “In some of those areas, you have extremely high costs of disposal--$100 a ton in some areas, versus our $10 a ton, which we think is high.

“I’d say San Diego is on the cutting edge of recycling, at least for the West. Eventually, we’d like to have the whole city on a curbside program. Our goal is to recycle at least 25% of the city’s garbage, in the hopes of easing the Miramar crunch.”

Ernie Anderson is director of city refuse collection and overseer of curbside recycling. He said the University City experiment has gone much better than city officials ever expected.

“It’s not only saving landfill space, it’s getting all of those people in all of those homes thinking about recycling,” Anderson said. “The excitement it’s generated has been unreal. We couldn’t be happier about it.”


Gammon and Anderson say the biggest hurdle in promoting recycling is getting people to change their behavior--to think of newsprint, tin and glass as valuable, reusable material . . . as something more than trash.

They say efforts at re-education are often as tough as getting people to change their eating habits, or make them stop drinking and smoking. The reason they’re “up” about University City is that it’s gone smoother than anyone dreamed, they say.

“The reason I’d say we’re toward the front of the pack is that curbside recycling is much harder to pull off in a big, heterogenous city,” Gammon said. “A place like Davis (in northern California), it’s much easier. They’ve been doing it for years. It’s small, with a homogenous, well-educated population. In San Francisco, L.A. or San Diego, it’s much harder, but we’re pleased. Very much so. We’d call it a great beginning.”

Why was University City picked as the kickoff point for such a project? Does it have to do with its being an upscale, well-educated, family-focused community in the shadow of UC San Diego and La Jolla?

Gammon said no, that it simply fit because trash collection is relegated to a single day--Friday. So, the day and place were picked and the boundaries defined--3,000 homes east of Interstate 5, west of Interstate 805, north of California 52 and south of the train tracks that bisect Rose Canyon.

Anderson said that San Jose is considered a model of recycling in California, with a curbside success rate of 68% (people who participate). He said that University City had exceeded everyone’s hopes by posting a 95% rate of participation in the first four weeks of the program, which began Oct. 28.

Anderson has fielded one major criticism, however. He’s gotten lots of calls--complaints--from people wondering when their neighborhoods in other corners of the city would go “on line.”

“The pilot program is an opportunity to work out bugs,” he said. “As we gain information and experience, then we can think about other areas.”


Linda Saxon, 39, whose husband is a local attorney, said that she and her family had recycled for years. But the task was time-consuming, involving weekly trips to a center run by the Boys’ Club in Kearny Mesa.

Now it’s as easy as walking to the sidewalk.

“Recycling is imperative for preserving our natural resources,” she said. “From an environmental standpoint, it’s the only thing that makes sense.”

Gammon, whose office is a newly created alcove of city bureaucracy, said that Saxon is right. Recycling is a must, not only because landfills are rapidly eroding but that reproducing tin, paper and glass is much cheaper than carving them out of virgin material. Recycling, he said, looms in defiance of natural resources as finite commodities.

As part of the city’s commitment to recycling, an interim buyback facility is scheduled to open at the Miramar landfill Monday morning and stay open from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. seven days a week. There, glass, paper, cans, even mattresses and tires can be resold for a nominal profit.

Gammon pointed out that independent buyback centers are located throughout the city, and some of those pay as much as 60 cents a pound for cans, newspapers and cardboard. He said a Christmas tree recycling drive is being launched this year, in the hope that 50,000 trees can be converted into mulch for landscaping in city parks.

Independent recycling--even curbside efforts--has been tried before, in Tierrasanta and various communities around the county. So far, Gammon said, none has succeeded. He hopes University City does.

As he says, so far, so good.

“You know, it has to,” he said. “It’s staggering to think about what might happen in the future, with all that trash and landfills disappearing . . . and costs skyrocketing. Recycling is the way. We’ve got to believe that.”