Trash to Match Our Mountains: California’s Growing Waste Woe

<i> Ed Salzman is the consulting editor of Golden State Report magazine</i>

Public officials throughout California pray for a scientific messiah to rescue them from the growing garbage crisis. Ideally, the technological rescuer would recycle California’s daily mountains of waste through an inexpensive and non-polluting process that is unseen, unheard, unsmelled and located in somebody else’s back yard.

“There is no laser beam that zaps waste and makes it go away,” reports George T. Eowan, chief executive officer of the state Waste Management Board. “That’s what everyone is looking for.”

Prayers unanswered, state and local officials are at last dealing with solid-waste as a major, urgent problem. The state board estimates that landfill capacity will be exhausted for 70% of California in less than eight years.

Gov. George Deukmejian announced in his State of the State address that a top 1989 priority is “development of an integrated waste-management proposal,” working “toward the goal of waste reduction and greater recycling.”


Eowan and other specialists plan to present the Legislature with a detailed proposal later this month. The program is expected to take a carrot-and-stick approach, forcing each region to take action while providing funds--perhaps through a bond issue--to lighten the fiscal burden on cities and counties.

Traditionally, California depended on landfills or garbage dumps close to urban areas. The state is so prosperous, it has become the world’s foremost throwaway society, producing more than 40 million tons of waste a year--about 8 1/2 pounds of waste per day per person, compared with five for the nation as a whole, three for Canada and two for Japan.

Landfills are now undesirable because they leach toxics that contaminate ground water and because garbage dumps are no longer acceptable close to developed areas. Local officials tried to reduce landfill need by exploring waste-to-energy incineration, a process used extensively in many other parts of the United States.

Environmentalists protested: Such plants create smog and produce an ash residue that can contain additional pollutants. Neighborhood groups joined the opposition. In San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, the waste-to-energy solution was abandoned. California now has only three fairly small plants in the City of Commerce, Long Beach and Stanislaus County.


Environmentalists push maximum recycling. But that poses new problems. Some materials are difficult to reuse. There is no demand for others. Even the market for newsprint may be fading away. The American Paper Institute, an industry trade association, predicts that so much old newspaper will soon hit the market that some of it may have to be dumped in landfills. And the NIMBYsyndrome--"not in my back yard"--now applies to recycling plants and even drop-off centers.

So “garbology” is a lose-lose issue for politicians. Few state elected officials have chosen to deal with the subject other than on the safe turf of recycling. One exception is Assemblywoman Delaine Eastin (D-Union City), who describes the paralysis this way:

“City officials want waste disposal that’s cheap and easy but not nearby--a patently inconsistent set of objectives. The disposal industry wants to cut its legal exposure by surrounding landfills with buffer zones. But it doesn’t want to buy the land. Environmentalists oppose burning and landfilling, and they support recycling. But today only 10% of our trash is recycled and nobody wants to wade around in the other 90% until recycling can handle more.”

She has come up with her own acronym,TWABAL--"there will always be a landfill"--to help put the issue in focus. She says it is unrealistic to expect Californians to learn the lost art of efficient consumption and recycle to the maximum. State growth and continued use of non-recyclable materials guarantee that dumping grounds will always be needed; even with incineration, the ash must be buried.

Five years ago, companies selling waste-to-energy technology thought California garbage would turn to gold. They spent fortunes trying to sell their technology in metropolitan areas. Now, having been defeated all over the map, the industry has essentially written off California. Wheelabrator Environmental Systems, after investing several million dollars in San Diego, announced withdrawal from the California market. Ogden Martin Systems built the Stanislaus plant but lost the big prize in Los Angeles; now it concentrates on other states.

Ogden’s Joey Garcia claims that California will one day face the choice between traditional landfills and waste-to-energy plants. Given that choice, surveys by the National Solid Waste Management Assn. show that the public will choose incineration. Garcia offers yet another acronym to explain why local officials have delayed the day of decision: NIMEY--"not in my election year.” NIMEY no longer applies to Deukmejian, who has already announced he will not seek a third term; that may explain why his Administration is suddenly attempting to take the lead on the issue.

The governor a few weeks ago told The Times’ George Skelton that he wants to abandon landfilling and employ incineration or “some other form of destroying waste.” What form? “I don’t know. I’m not an engineer. You know the way they do things now. They come along with lasers or something and all of a sudden, zap, it’s gone,” he said. Meanwhile, his aides try to develop a program that will work until the zapper arrives.

Even in the tightly controlled Deukmejian Administration, mounting waste has produced mounting internal conflict. Rivalry developed between the Department of Conservation, which runs the statewide container recycling program, and the Solid Waste Management Board, which generally supervises garbage-disposal programs. The governor recently ordered the agencies to cooperate because he wants his Administration to speak with one voice before the Legislature.


Like local officials, the state has been looking for an easy solution through technology. Meanwhile, Eowan reports some scientific advances that may relieve a little pressure. Two examples:

-- German and French firms have developed techniques--yes, using lasers--that sort materials by color, texture, weight, toxicity and other factors. Plastics, in heavy demand by recyclers, can be isolated by this technology. On the downside, the process is very expensive, untested in the United States and still doesn’t dispose of non-recyclables.

-- A Minnesota plant is taking shredded tires, adding chemicals and producing molded consumer products. Eowan thinks this could at least solve the problem of discarded tires.

Minus a major technological breakthrough and with opposition to incineration still strong, some communities look for landfills far from the urban centers.

California is growing at the rate of 600,000 residents a year; there isn’t much land left that won’t soon be in somebody’s back yard or in a protected open-space zone. One day state and local officials will be forced to give citizens what they don’t want--refuse restrictions and much higher garbage bills.

The problem piles so high, Eowan warns that Californians can’t pick and choose between alternate solutions: “We’ve got to do everything,” he said.