San Diego plans to expand city dump despite zero-waste policy

Move comes in wake of China’s policy change on buying recycled items from US sources


San Diego officials say they plan to increase the capacity of the Miramar Landfill by allowing waste to pile up 25 feet higher into the air — a significant policy shift coming less than five years after the city adopted a “zero waste” plan.

Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced in 2015 that the projected life of the city’s main dump had been extended from 2022 to 2030 thanks to new city recycling policies, trash compaction methods and other innovations.

But recently city officials launched an environmental analysis of the potential impacts of increasing the height of the 1,400-acre dump from 485 feet above sea level now to 510 feet above sea level.


A vertical expansion is the city’s only option. The last possible horizontal expansion of the landfill, into the western portion of the site, took place in 2008.

The vertical expansion could make the dump more visible to residents in Mira Mesa, Scripps Ranch and University City, and to motorists on Interstate 805 and state Route 52, city officials say in their environmental analysis.

The city’s proposal to expand the dump comes in the wake of China’s decision in 2018 to sharply limit the amount of recycled goods it buys from the United States.

That policy has left cities across California and the nation with tons of recycled goods they must sell at much lower prices, or that they can’t sell at all.

San Diego officials have said China’s move is jeopardizing the city’s ability to meet the goals of its zero waste policy, a plan to stop dumping into the landfill by 2040 at the latest.

While San Diego wouldn’t literally recycle 100% of its trash in 2040, no material would be deposited in landfills to the maximum extent feasible.

The plan calls for that to be achieved by encouraging more recycling by residents and businesses, producing less waste citywide and fostering development of new markets for recycled and composted materials.


A city spokesman declined to tie the proposed vertical expansion of the dump to the shrinking market for recycled goods, characterizing the move as part of general strategic planning for the city’s future.

“The city approaches disposal capacity needs from a long-range planning perspective,” said the spokesman, Jose Ysea. “The proposed increase of 25 feet, to a maximum elevation of 510 feet mean sea level, will increase the life of the landfill.”

Nicole Capretz, one the region’s leading environmental experts, said the city’s decision is an abrupt shift in course from the zero-waste stance of just a few years ago.

China’s policy change has a two-fold impact, she said. In addition to leaving the city with tons of recycled goods it’s struggling to sell, the lost revenue will make it much harder to build a planned resource recovery facility at the dump.

That facility, a key component of San Diego’s landmark climate action plan, would boost recycling of food waste, yard waste and other organic waste, said Capretz, executive director of the nonprofit Climate Action Campaign.

“It’s meant to be a more comprehensive, holistic recycling center that would have recycling for things we don’t have now,” said Capretz, the primary author of the city’s climate plan. “You would need those kinds of services to get to zero waste.”

Cities across California have lobbied the state Legislature in recent months to explore steps the state could take to build a local market for recycled goods, helping cities meet their recycling goals without dependence on China.


San Diego officials say the finances of city trash collection may not be viable long-term without some place to sell the recycled material the city collects from nearly 300,000 residential customers.

The city spends about $34 million a year providing free trash pick-up to residents living in single-family homes under a controversial 1919 law called the People’s Ordinance.

Ysea, the city spokesman, said the city’s obligations under that ordinance are playing a role in the decision to pursue a vertical expansion of the dump.

The expansion would require approval from the City Council, water quality regulators, air pollution officials, the state waste board and Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, which owns the land and leases it to the city.

Nearby community leaders said this week they were not aware of the proposed expansion.

Chris Nelson, chairman of the University Community Planning Group, said his panel’s goal would be to make sure the city’s plan has the minimal possible impact on nearby areas.

Councilman Chris Cate, whose district includes the dump, said Friday he tentatively supports the city’s plan.


“This is the only city-owned and operated landfill, so anything we can do to extend the life of the landfill needs to be seriously considered,” Cate said.

While he acknowledged concerns about visual impacts and possible increases in odors, he noted that there aren’t any homes adjacent to the dump. It is surrounded by freeways and the military base.

Cate also expressed confidence that any approved vertical expansion of the dump would include mitigation measures to protect residents.

The city has operated the landfill since 1959, when it signed a $500-a-year lease deal with the U.S. government. The north and south sections of the landfill have already been filled, while the western portion remains active.