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A Cause Celeb : Actor Ed Begley Crams for an Environmental Performance

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just the day before, environmentally vigilant actor Ed Begley Jr. stood before the five Los Angeles County supervisors, arguing that there would be no need for more landfills if everyone followed his example and discarded only enough trash each week to fill a glove compartment.

And now, to prove that it was no idle boast, Begley--his brow shiny with sweat--was straining to cram a week’s worth of household trash into the tiny glove compartment of his battery-powered Volkswagen Rabbit.

“This has got to be the smallest goddamn glove box in the history of man,” said Begley, who is best known for his television role as a doctor on the dramatic series “St. Elsewhere.” “This is the one time I wish I owned a Buick Le Sabre.”

On Tuesday, Begley rode his bicycle 13 miles from Studio City to Downtown to boast to the supervisors that if everyone in Los Angeles did as he did and recycled their yard trimmings and aluminum cans, there would be no need to expand the Sunshine Canyon landfill or fill any other pristine canyon with garbage.

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“I throw away one glove compartment’s worth of trash every week,” Begley said. “I know it’s doable.”

Sniffed a spokesman for Supervisor Ed Edelman: “Dramatic hyperbole.”

Was Begley’s boast fiction or fact?

The Times went to his Studio City home Wednesday to throw down the gauntlet. Given scant warning of the visit, Begley swore he had squirreled away no trash to reduce the load. But he had taken the time to slip into a Greenpeace web belt, white T-shirt and jeans--laundered, of course, with non-phosphate detergent, one of the many environmentally correct products he uses.

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“It all begins right here,” said Begley, pointing to three cardboard cartons resting on his wood floor, beneath a desk. He sorts every scrap of paper that passes through the door of the one-story, solar-powered ranch house with its drought-resistant front lawn, where he lives alone except for frequent visits from his two teen-age children and his girlfriend.

To reduce the flow of junk mail, he personally calls every company that sends him a catalogue and asks to be taken off the mailing list. About once a month, Begley hops into his $12,000 electric car and putt-putts over to a Sun Valley recycler to sell the boxes of separated colored and white paper and uncorrugated cardboard.

Charging into his kitchen, reporter in pursuit, Begley picked over his kitchen trash before emptying it into a larger white bag (made of recycled plastic, naturally): a plastic oatmeal cookie wrapper, an empty bag for brown rice. No problem there. But what are these objects taking up so much room? Begley scowled.

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“My girlfriend was over. I’m not responsible for this milk carton,” he said. “And my kids had some cream cheese that went bad, that’s why this thing is here.”

Conspicuously absent from Begley’s trash cans were the frozen-food packages with their microwaveable trays that many harried Angelenos rely on for sustenance--which cannot be recycled. “I have a microwave,” Begley said, “but the most I use it for is maybe to heat up a tofu dog. I grow most of my own food.”

Then it’s out toward the garden, with a quick peek at the yellow bin provided by the city for aluminum cans, glass bottles and other recyclable materials. “God smiled at me . . . by making me part of one of the city’s first recycling pilot programs,” Begley said, caressing the plastic bin.

But Begley’s real pride and joy is a brown mound of decaying yard trimmings and tomato skins that lay just outside his back door. The compost heap produces enough soil to replenish the beds of corn, beets and tomatoes that take up almost every inch of his spacious yard.

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By this time, Begley had collected enough trash to fill the white plastic bag to a depth of about seven bulging inches. He hurried through the garden to the garage, where his taupe electric car was recharging with its hood up. On the way, he compulsively squeezed the bag to condense the load.

Sitting down in the passenger seat, Begley popped open the glove compartment, which is the size of a small breadbox. He took a deep breath and, using both hands, tried to cram the bag in. It didn’t fit.

But the indefatigable actor had one more trick up his sleeve. Well, actually, up his pants. Propping his legs up on the glove compartment, Begley shoved with the force of leg muscles that have bicycled over the Sepulveda Pass countless times. The bottom of the glove box actually bulged as the bursting bag squeezed in, inch by inch.

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“It fits!” Begley shouted triumphantly, slamming shut the glove box before the garbage could escape.

“I didn’t really know if I could do it.”

Begley acknowledges that most city residents would have a hard time recycling as much trash as he does. And he knows there’s not much environmental benefit in driving 20 miles in a gasoline-powered car to discard paper waste.

Statistics confirm his suspicions. Although 578,000 households in Los Angeles, or 80%, now participate in some form of curbside recycling, only half of them separate their yard trimmings, which makes up one-third of the city’s waste.

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“OK, let them produce four glove compartmentfuls,” Begley said. “It would still be less than we do now. Then we could begin to close Lopez Canyon and other problem landfills.”

Waste Reduction Tips In addition to utilizing the city’s curbside recycling program and drop-off centers, residents can take a number of measures to reduce waste: Buy recycled products and products with least amount of packaging. Make compost for the garden. Buy economy size to reduce number of containers thrown away. Use reusable mugs and eating utensils instead of plastic and Styrofoam. Buy reusable instead of disposable items, such as razors. In Los Angeles, call (800) 773-CITY for ways to reduce waste; call (800) 332-SAVE for the recycling center nearest you.


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