The Trash Piles Up

Here is one more thing for Southern Californians to worry about: The region is running out of places to dump its trash.

Fortunately, there are solutions to the waste-management problem. Unfortunately, the region has been painfully slow to exercise any of them other than to find new places to dump waste. And that is no simple trick. As much as area residents dislike living near airports or jails, they seem to have a particular distaste for having garbage dumps in their neighborhoods.

Three to five years are needed to open a new landfill under existing environmental requirements. Only one new landfill has gone into operation in the region in the past decade--in Riverside County. Los Angeles County is expected to reach total landfill capacity in two or three years. There is no regional mechanism for dealing with the issue. The state Solid Waste Management Board requires counties to file periodic plans, but the board has no authority to settle disputes over the location of new landfills as there is for hazardous waste.

A partial solution, which has been particularly successful in many countries and some states, is incineration. But Los Angeles’ efforts to build the first of several planned Lancer waste-to-energy plants were aborted by public protest, in part because of health concerns over emissions from the incinerator.


Southern California still is in the dark ages of waste disposal, burying 90% or more of its trash in landfills. In regions with integrated programs, trash is sorted for items that can be recycled or composted. The rest is incinerated with the resulting ash deposited in landfills, drastically reducing the landfill capacity required. Southern California needs such a system. No single element, like finding more landfills, will solve the problem. Developing such a program will take considerable leadership, planning and public education. Sorting and eliminating waste at the source is the most effective program of all.

A group of Southern California officials recently inspected an impressive array of pollution-control equipment at the Dan Miljo trade fair in Herning, Denmark, and toured waste-to-energy facilities near Herning and Copenhagen. Members were impressed with the advances that the Danes had made in integrated waste management, although existing incinerators would not meet present Southern California air standards. But a new unit under construction at Roskilde by KARA, an 11-city waste-disposal cooperative, would conform to all California standards, including the carcinogens that have been of particular concern.

The single event that most impressed the Californians, however, was a slide show presented by KARA officials on the life cycle of a successful waste-management program, from the kitchen garbage can to a completed landfill turned into a park. At the end of the show the group burst into applause, and its leader said that none of them had ever seen such an effective explanation of the benefits of trash separation, recycling and incineration. Members of the group eagerly bargained to buy copies of the slides for use in their home communities.

If such enthusiasm can be transferred to the people in charge of waste disposal in Southern California and the public in general, the slide show may be the best investment that the officials ever made. When it comes to waste in Southern California, there is no time to waste.