Los Angeles’ trash and recycling policies for apartments debated

Empty soda bottle? Blue bin. Small wood box? Black bin. Magazine? Blue again. It’s become part of life for millions of L.A. residents to sort their trash based on what can be recycled and what can’t. How much gets diverted from the landfill gives L.A. some bragging rights: It’s at the top of the charts among major cities. More than 450 natural gas-powered trucks make a coordinated effort to divert about 65% of the city’s trash from landfills.

But that’s just for single-family homes. The city’s 600,000 apartments are served by more than 50 trash collection companies. In some neighborhoods, several trucks rumble along the same street, spurring residents to complain about noise and inconvenience. And for about 180,000 apartments, recycling isn’t even an option.

The Bureau of Sanitation seeks to change the landscape, as has been mandated by the state, and move toward Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s zero-waste goal.

Throwing trash all in one bin works in some cities

For now, officials are doing a lot of listening — to residents unhappy with the private hauler trucks that they say clog their streets, especially in the San Fernando Valley, where much of the trash winds up; to small hauling companies who worry they could be put out of business; to landlords who want to retain the power to manage the trash in their buildings; to environmentalists who want polluting trucks off the roads.

“As a city overall, we’re doing very well compared with other large cities. But in our quest to improve our diversion statistics, obviously we could do much better. The obvious direction we’re going is to do multifamily,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, later adding, “It makes sense for the consumer. It makes sense for the environment.”


The city is close to its 2013 goal of diverting 70% of its trash to recycling or compost, said Alex Helou, assistant director of the Bureau of Sanitation.

“Residents by and large, they do want recycling in their apartment buildings,” Helou said.

But businesses and large apartment buildings still create more than 2 million tons of trash each year — a $250-million annual market for private waste haulers.

“What we are looking for is that we have fewer trucks on the road,” Helou said. That would reduce emissions, wear and tear on pavement, traffic congestion and noise.

Few would argue with the potential improvements, but there is resistance to change, led largely by the trash haulers. Some businesses could be hurt by consolidation, especially smaller operations with a couple of trucks, Helou acknowledged. “This is going to shrink the market.”

It’s been a long process. In 2006, the city warned that in seven years its system for most apartment buildings could change. The notice dovetailed with haulers’ cycle for replacing trucks, so they could consider the future. This April, the city gave similar notice for commercial buildings. (New regulations won’t cover what’s called construction and demolition trash.) All told, about 140 trash companies work in the city.

It could be a year before the City Council decides what to do, but on the table are two scenarios: an exclusive system, in which haulers bid to be the sole franchise in designated parts of the city, versus a nonexclusive system, in which an unlimited number of haulers who meet certain criteria can work. New rules could govern environmental and recycling standards for trucks and the fees that could be collected.

“This is a fundamental issue. If we don’t act aggressively, we are asleep at the wheel,” said Greg Good, who leads the waste and recycling project at the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. The group’s Don’t Waste L.A. campaign has called for the exclusive franchise system, awarded through a competitive bidding process that the alliance said will add green jobs and could increase recycling rates. The group said the permit system now in place lacks standards and accountability.

“This is about our environment, our workers, our communities, our future,” he said.

Hillary Gordon lives in Westwood in an apartment building small enough that city trucks collect her trash. (Buildings with four units or fewer are treated like single-family homes.) But her narrow street includes larger buildings too, so trucks are there “pretty much every day” on no discernible schedule, she said. Sometimes that means she cannot drive down her own street.

She would like to see regulations that would put an end to that, she told officials at a recent hearing.

Tomas O’Grady represented the Greater Griffith Park Neighborhood Council at the hearing, saying the group supports the proposal from Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. He noted that a neighborhood middle school is beginning an environmental program, and it would be counterproductive for those students to learn about the environment in class and see less than a model system when they walk outside.

“It’s just not good enough to have all those trucks,” he said. “It makes us look stupid as a city.”

There are many signs, advocates for a new system said, that the current one is broken. In the same neighborhood, one customer might pay $100 and another could pay $400 for essentially the same service, Good said. Meanwhile, the landfills are filling up, he said.

“Folks don’t really know what happens with their trash,” Good said. Workers at collection facilities who sort recyclables from apartment building trash, he said, are “dealing with needles to carcasses to everything else.”

Not surprising, but the haulers see the situation with a different perspective.

“The city of Los Angeles and the job on the commercial sector is second to none in the country,” said Ron Saldana, executive director of the trade group Los Angeles County Disposal Assn.

“We are all working toward the same thing. We are all working toward a cleaner environment,” Saldana said. “We don’t believe you have to put 135 companies out of business to create some green jobs.”

Why recycling in Los Angeles is so confusing

Daniel Agajanian, the founder and president of Direct Disposal, said the current system gives customers the chance to choose the company that best suits their recycling needs.

“People don’t like to be told whom to use. We all compete,” Agajanian said. “To limit haulers would be a mistake for the city of Los Angeles.”

Some of his colleagues cited examples to show that competition among haulers works: one that responded to a client’s need for a pickup on a New Year’s Eve, another whose customers have his home telephone numbers, others who work long hours to keep their businesses going.

Despite exclusive-system proponents’ projections of a fee decrease, Jim Clarke, the executive director of the Apartment Assn. of Greater Los Angeles, said such a change probably would cause fees to rise.

“Awarding contracts to a few companies will make it hard to encourage competition,” he said. Landlords believe they can negotiate better contracts on their own.

He also said it’s harder to get apartment residents to adhere to a recycling routine.

“It’s very difficult to condition our tenants,” he said. “You can’t mandate them to split up their trash in two cans in their units.”

The association, Clarke said, encourages its members to set up recycling programs and to educate tenants on how and why to separate their trash. But in some buildings, particularly small garden-style apartments, there is no room for blue bins, he said.

With the sides as far apart as they are, it’s perhaps a good thing that — as the stakeholders have been told at the hearings — there’s a long way to go before a new plan is in place.