L.A.'s new recycling program sees a decline in missed pickup complaints after rocky start

An employee with a private refuse collector, shown in August, moves a bin to the street in West Los Angeles. City officials say the number of complaints generated by their commercial refuse program is dropping.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

The refuse companies hired to carry out L.A.’s new recycling program may have finally gotten a handle on their pickup problems.

Complaints about missed garbage collection plummeted 68% in Los Angeles in February compared with the prior month, according to figures released Wednesday by the city’s Bureau of Sanitation. The agency said it received 5,559 complaints in January and 1,757 last month.

“The problem has not been solved, but we have been working hard to remedy the concerns voiced by customers,” said Elena Stern, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Works, which oversees the sanitation bureau. “These numbers clearly indicate that we are moving in the right direction.”

Officials say the numbers do not offer a precise look at the number of missed collections under the new recycling program, which covers an estimated 70,000 customers and is known as RecycLA. For example, the city could receive complaint calls from three people in the same apartment building about a single missed pickup.


Councilman Mike Bonin, who recently called the rollout of RecycLA “a hot mess,” said in a statement that he is encouraged by the reduction in missed pickup complaints. Still, he argued that the city needs to tackle the program’s other outstanding issues.

“In addition to ensuring reliable service for customers, I want to know that measures are being taken to protect customers from drastic and often-unexplained billing increases, as well as extreme fees for things like using a remote to open a gate or moving a trash bin so it can be collected,” said Bonin, who represents coastal neighborhoods.

The customer complaint numbers were released on the same day that backers of RecycLA held a rally outside City Hall to show their support for the initiative. The program, which was championed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, has had longstanding support from union leaders, environmental groups and some neighborhood nonprofits.

Supporters say RecycLA is helping to divert trash from landfills, improve worker conditions and remove high-polluting trash trucks from neighborhood streets. Nevertheless, the program has been buffeted by problems since it started last summer.

Businesses, landlords and condominium associations have complained about skyrocketing bills, fueled in large part by new and expensive fees. Customers also have portrayed RecycLA as a monopoly, one that makes it impossible for them to shop around for a lower price or better service. Seven companies have the exclusive right to pick up trash in designated sections of the city.

Complaints about missed trash collection reached their peak in December, and two months later, several council members grilled trash company executives and sanitation officials on the bumpy rollout. Councilman Mitchell Englander, who represents part of the San Fernando Valley, went so far as to call for the city to look at pulling out of the program.

So far, none of Englander’s colleagues have voiced support for such a move. And the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, the nonprofit group that spearheaded the campaign for RecycLA, said it is determined to keep the program intact.

Robert Nothoff, who oversees waste campaigns for the alliance, attributed the improved customer service numbers in part to the end of the RecycLA transition period Jan. 31. Once the transition was finished, the city gained the power to impose fees and fines on haulers that fail to comply with the terms of their contracts.

“As we’ve been saying all along, the program needs time to work itself out,” Nothoff said.

Twitter: @DavidZahniser