Serious Discussion About Solid-Waste Policy Is Vital to Us All

J. Eugene Grigsby III is director of UCLA's Advanced Policey Institute in the School of Public Policy and Social Research

Proposals to locate unpopular facilities such as prisons, AIDS hospices or garbage dumps are one way to ensure instant mobilization of citizen interest groups, usually around the theme of "Not in my back yard." The current attempts by Los Angeles County to expand existing landfills and to develop new ones are no exception.

A revised Solid Waste Action Plan in 1988 detailed how all the business and residential trash in Los Angeles County would be disposed of. The county indicated that we would soon face a landfill capacity "crisis" and needed to create new capacity for the next 50 years.

One of the key issues in this debate is the cost. Proponents of new landfills argue that it will cost business less to dispose of solid waste in new landfills than to increase recycling efforts. Opponents reply that the full cost of managing inefficient landfills, as well as those that have been closed, are not fully accounted for and so the cost differences are not that great.

To meet its goals under the 1988 plan, Los Angeles County identified potential new landfill sites, one of which was Elsmere Canyon in the city of Santa Clarita. Not surprisingly, a number of different citizens' groups and city officials reacted with outrage that Elsmere Canyon, a scenic natural habitat, could be selected to become a garbage dump.

To help dissuade the county from pursuing this particular site, Santa Clarita commissioned a study it hoped would demonstrate that the county had other alternatives. However, a consultant group was able to convince the city that attempting to change the county's solid-waste policy solely to eliminate Elsmere Canyon was not likely to succeed.

The report, prepared by GBB Associates of Falls Church, Va., was enlightening in several ways. First, it reviewed solid-waste practices being implemented by a number of other cities and states, including Chicago, Berkeley, Seattle and New Jersey. Practices in Germany, France, Austria, England, Belgium, Japan and Hong Kong were also reviewed. The key finding was that these other jurisdictions have systematically shifted their waste management policies from an emphasis on expanding landfill capacity to recycling.

The report also pointed out that California law requires counties to divert 25% of the waste stream from landfills by 1995 and 50% by 2000. Although Los Angeles County has yet to achieve these goals, a growing number of cities in the county are meeting--in some cases exceeding--them. The report also suggested that there is no imminent landfill capacity crisis. Indeed, the report contended that if the seven alternative policy options recommended are implemented, the county would have sufficient landfill capacity for the next 22 years.

The report has been widely circulated among the county's 88 cities. Although there certainly isn't universal agreement on all of the alternatives, there is a growing consensus that a greater reliance on recycling and the use of proven new technologies makes for a much sounder policy than building new landfills.

In the private sector, industry leaders such as Walt Disney Co. and Vons Cos. have found ways to recycle much of their waste at lower cost. In the long run, keeping the pressure on all businesses to achieve high recycling objectives may turn out to be less costly than we think, and the benefits to the overall environment clearly are worth pursuing.

Indeed, the role of big business in the success of these efforts is key. There is still no certainty that the county will change its policy. But it is quite clear that there is growing interest among the county's cities, businesses, waste hauler industries and environmental groups to engage in much more serious dialogue about the most appropriate solid-waste policy. If a new policy does emerge, maybe we ought to look to this approach as a model on which to formulate future countywide policies. Instead of "Not in my back yard," the focus could become how to develop more reasonable and equitable approaches that seek to solve problems affecting us all.

What initially began with one city trying to find a way to protect its own interests has now become a consortium of cities focusing on much broader and more important issues: how to develop a new countywide integrated solid-waste policy that is more responsive to more municipalities and better achieves state requirements. It also reflects the reality that if the region is to continue to grow, it must have a viable waste-disposal strategy.

J. Eugene Grigsby III can be reached via e-mail at

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