Following the Trash


The sodden diapers and moldy bread of Rancho Cucamonga are a long way from home. When garbage from this San Bernardino County suburb finally sinks into a landfill, it’s at a dump about 25 miles away in Orange County.

In Los Angeles County, meanwhile, one of the biggest landfills in Southern California takes in trash from dozens of surrounding cities--except for L.A., whose residential refuse has long been banned from the gargantuan Puente Hills Landfill near Whittier.

Following the twists and turns of local garbage disposal can be downright dizzying. An armada of garbage trucks crisscrosses the Southland six days a week, hauling almost 20 million smelly tons per year to about 50 burial grounds throughout Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.

“It may seem, to the naked eye, that the trash trucks are running around like ants on a hot plate,” said Arnie Berghoff, a veteran lobbyist for garbage giant Browning-Ferris Industries. “But when you really look at it, there is some logic to it.”


The world of garbage disposal has one cardinal rule, an imperative that sometimes defies the dictates of geography and often infuriates residents who live beside hulking landfills: Trash generally goes where it’s cheapest.

Case in point: the Los Angeles City Council’s recent decision to allow Browning-Ferris to expand the Sunshine Canyon Landfill into Granada Hills. Hundreds of residents protested the plan, including schoolchildren who wore gas masks to council meetings to dramatize their plight. Why not ship the waste to a desert landfill, some asked, far from populated neighborhoods and schools?

The answer boiled down to dollars. Landfills charge tipping fees--a toll to dump a ton of garbage--and BFI offered a price of $18.26 per ton at Sunshine Canyon.

The tipping fees at two alternative landfills, Antelope Valley and Lancaster, were comparable, at $19 per ton. But the projected costs of hauling the garbage there more than doubled the price, according to a city analysis.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, just get it out of town.’ But it costs a lot of money,” said Joe Haworth, spokesman for the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County. “There should be a really good reason for getting it out of town--such as, there’s no more landfill space. Not just that we don’t want that thing here.”

Granada Hills residents most emphatically don’t want that thing--an expanded dump that would gobble 55 million tons of trash over 26 years--anywhere near them. In January, the North Valley Coalition of Concerned Citizens sued the city, seeking to overturn the expansion.

The lawsuit is the latest volley in a fierce battle over Sunshine Canyon, home to a landfill for 42 years. Residents won the fight to close the dump after its city permit expired in 1991, only to see it reborn five years later just outside city limits in unincorporated Los Angeles County.

The Economics of Trash

Browning-Ferris poured nearly $600,000 into a lobbying campaign to win the City Council’s 8-7 vote to widen the dump back into city territory. The vote incensed many Valley residents and added momentum to the push for secession.

“I’ve become the most cynical person in the world,” said Anne Ziliak, a Granada Hills mother who suffers from allergies that she attributes to dust swirling off the nearby landfill.

“Instead of money, [city officials] should be thinking about the health of the people,” she said. “I think they should take a good look at themselves and ask, ‘Would I want to live next to a landfill?’ ”

In Southern California, most garbage is dumped relatively close to where it originates. In 1998, the most recent year for which statewide data are available, all five local counties disposed of most of their residential and commercial waste within their borders.

Riverside County kept the highest proportion of its garbage, exporting only 2.6% to nearby counties. At the other end of the spectrum was San Bernardino County, which sent 27.5% of its trash to other counties, mainly Orange and Riverside, according to records from the California Integrated Waste Management Board.

The tipping fees at various landfills certainly influence where garbage is dumped. The city of Rancho Cucamonga, for example, saves $8.67 per ton by trucking its municipal trash to the Olinda Alpha Landfill in Orange County instead of to the pricier San Bernardino County dumps, said Bob Zetterberg, the city’s waste coordinator.

Distance, too, is important. Time spent hauling garbage along the freeways means time off the trash collection route, wear and tear on the trucks and higher fuel bills.

“It’s all driven by dollars, like anything else,” said Paul Glass, engineering and operations manager at San Bernardino County’s Waste System Division.

For the western cities of San Bernardino County, “it’s just cheaper to go to the other counties,” he added. But “you can’t go too far. Otherwise, it’ll cost too much.”

Economic realism aside, many people are hard pressed to imagine garbage as a commodity. Even tiny ripples in the waste stream can make big waves among residents concerned about the health and environmental impact of landfills.

In Ventura County, the Toland Road Landfill in Santa Paula stirred up protests last year by trying to increase the small amount of garbage it accepts from Carpinteria, a town in adjoining Santa Barbara County. Residents promptly denounced the prospect of receiving more out-of-county trash--even though Ventura County exports 16.2% of its garbage to another neighbor, Los Angeles County.

A Moneymaker for Orange County

In 1989, California passed a law requiring each city and county to divert 50% of its waste from landfills by 2000, through recycling and other programs. While the goal remains elusive for some jurisdictions--Los Angeles County, for instance, had managed to reduce its garbage by only about 35% by the end of 1999--the net effect has been to prolong the usefulness of existing landfills.

Other factors--such as the 1994 bankruptcy of Orange County--have also changed local disposal patterns. Orange County had previously barred out-of-county waste, but in 1997 it began accepting garbage from surrounding counties as a way to raise money. In 1998, its landfills swallowed more than 650,000 tons of Los Angeles County’s trash and more than 225,000 tons from San Bernardino County, according to state data.

Orange County is so hungry for garbage that it now requires waste haulers to deliver all county trash to county landfills, said Raymond Hull, spokesman for Orange County’s Integrated Waste Management Department. To encourage other regions to send trash, the county landfills offer $19.33-per-ton tipping fees for out-of-county garbage--a bargain compared with the $22 they charge locals.

There are other quirks in the waste stream, like the Puente Hills Landfill’s refusal to accept municipal trash from the city of Los Angeles, though it does take in a small amount of commercial garbage. The ban dates to the mid-1980s, when county officials asked the city for permission to reopen the old Mission Canyon Landfill in the Sepulveda Pass.

The city refused, citing the homes and schools that had been built near the closed dump, and in return the county barred city trash from Puente Hills, a county-owned site.

These days, almost all of the city’s residential trash is sent to either Sunshine Canyon or the Bradley West Landfill in Sun Valley, said Steve Fortune, a manager at the city’s Bureau of Sanitation.

Trash Trains in the Future

With a population of more than 9 million, Los Angeles County is Southern California’s undisputed king of the garbage mound. The county disposed of more than 12 million tons of trash in 1998--more than the other four Southland counties combined. About 93% of this garbage stayed in Los Angeles County.

All those bulging Hefty bags eventually add up, filling landfills to capacity. Two major Los Angeles County dumps, Bradley and the Spadra Landfill in Pomona, are projected to close within the next two years, with Spadra set to shut as soon as next month.

Others are expanding, including Sunshine Canyon and the Chiquita Canyon Landfill in Santa Clarita. The county now has enough disposal capacity to last from six to 13 years, according to a report released by sanitation officials last month.

After that, however, garbage planners are looking to the desert.

“Ultimately, you’re going to see trucks or maybe even trains hauling trash out of the L.A. Basin,” Haworth said. “The fact is, when you have a jampacked area like Los Angeles, you’re going to run out of landfill space.”

One possibility is loading garbage onto trains for a ride to a remote dump. So far, there are no waste-by-rail landfills operating in California, but several are in the works.

The Mesquite Regional Landfill in Imperial County and the Eagle Mountain Landfill in Riverside County, both of which have obtained operating permits, are looking to line up customers to fill their mammoth pits with trash.

Neither Mesquite, 35 miles east of Brawley, nor Eagle Mountain, next to Joshua Tree National Park between Indio and Blythe, is open yet. Taken together, the two dumps have a proposed capacity of 30,000 to 40,000 tons of garbage per day, to be shipped in closed containers aboard mile-long trains.

“Send it our way. We’re ready,” said Richard Daniels, the president and CEO of Mine Reclamation Corp., owner of the Eagle Mountain site. “We’re trying to create the alternative, to put landfills where they belong: in distant, remote, isolated areas.”


The Long Haul of Waste Disposal

Across five Southland counties, nearly 20 million tons of garbage was hauled to about 50 sites in 1998. Trash generally ends up where it’s cheapest to dispose of, and all five counties deposited most of their residential and commercial waste within their borders.

Source: California Integrated Waste Management Board