Bradley's Trash Plan

Los Angeles' politicians used to speak of 1961 in the same hushed, fearful tones Europe's crowned heads once reserved for 1848. Sixty-one, after all, was the year the city's aroused burghers mounted the barricades and thrust Sam Yorty into the mayor's office, in large part, because he promised to lift from their shoulders the oppressive yoke of mandatory trash separation.

For more than two decades, one of the axioms of civic politics has been: Thou shalt not mess with the people's garbage.

That Mayor Tom Bradley could now propose the nation's most comprehensive and farsighted trash separation and recycling program, and have it accepted without serious opposition, is a mark of Los Angeles' new maturity when it comes to dealing with environmental issues. In fact, a recent city-sponsored survey found that 80% of Los Angeles' residents are willing to cooperate in a waste-separation project.

Like approval of the new regional clean-air plan, acceptance of the recycling proposal is a vital acknowledgement of the plain fact that Southern Californians no longer can live heedlessly on this land. And, like air pollution, solid-waste disposal is a regional problem. Smaller communities, such as Santa Monica, Pasadena, Burbank and Glendale, already have successful recycling projects. Cities in Orange and San Diego counties are, like Los Angeles, being prodded into action by landfill sites that have reached capacity.

Initially, the L.A. plan will require all 720,000 of the city's houses and small apartment buildings to separate their trash for curb-side collection. A recycling program for businesses and buildings with six or more residential units will be proposed later. Each household will be given three containers: one of 12-14 gallons in which to put aluminum cans, glass and plastic bottles; one 60-90 gallon receptacle for yard waste, and one 60-90 gallon can for non-recycleable garbage. Newspapers will be tied and placed on top of the can and bottle bin. All three containers will be suitable for automated pickup by specialized trucks.

City officials believe that in its first five years the program will cost about $53 million annually. Perhaps $8 million of that will be earned back through the sale of recyclable trash and $13 million saved by reducing landfill costs. Eventually, the price of a comprehensive citywide recycling program probably will approach $85 million, less the earnings from recycling and the savings from reduced landfill usage.

How to meet these costs is the point now at issue. The mayor's budget, which is before the City Council's Finance and Revenue Committee, proposes a modest citywide fee to cover the cost of cleaning up landfills, but suggests that the authorizing language be broad enough to cover fees for other programs, including recycling. This, in fact, is a back-door approach to getting the trash collection fee Bradley's special task force on recycling is expected to recommend shortly. The revenue committee's chairman, Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, and several of his colleagues oppose such a charge, and so do we.

On principle, we believe that as many governmental activities as possible, and particularly basic services, ought to be financed out of general revenues. While user fees may make some sense in smaller, relatively homogeneous communities, they are not sound policy in a city with great disparities of income, such as Los Angeles. In other words, it is inherently inequitable to charge the people of Pico Union the same fee levied on residents of Brentwood Park. Finally, as a practical matter, items in the general revenue budget receive closer scrutiny from the City Council than do costs met by special fees.

Proper oversight and equitable funding of this complex project are essential, but even more important is the recognition that this is the sort of rational environmental policy no Southern California community can afford to be without.

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