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Recycling getting trashed

For a company whose upbeat slogan is “Think Green,” Waste Management seems to be letting down a lot of Laguna Beach residents.

Out of some 10,000 residential addresses in Laguna, a small but significant number — 280 — do not receive recycling service from Waste Management, even though the giant trash hauler’s contract with the city of Laguna Beach requires the service be provided to all residential customers.

Waste Management representatives say that they can’t risk “double duty” service on some Laguna Beach streets because the streets are too narrow, winding or precipitous.

These “hard-to-service” streets are designated for “commingled” trash service — in other words, recyclables are discarded along with trash — because providing recycling would require a second or third truck trip.

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But you wouldn’t know it if you lived on those streets because many of them have recycling bins even though the recyclables are thrown into the garbage along with everything else. Lagunans have a very high rate of participation in recycling — 86%, according to the city.

Waste Management boasts on its website that it is the “largest recycler of municipal solid waste in North America.” The waste hauler provides free recycling services for Laguna businesses and recently delivered 20 specially designed recycling containers to the city for public use.

So why is the company letting people think they are recycling when they’re not, and why can’t they just pick up the recyclables? That’s what residents of Point Place want to know.

The “commingling” practice has infuriated Point Place resident John Arnold, who says that, despite vigorous complaints to the waste company over two to three years, the recycling bins on his street have routinely been emptied into the trash along with the garbage.

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“Week after week we keep our recycling separate from the trash, and it burns me up to see it go into the dump truck,” Arnold said.

“Recycling is essential for Laguna Beach. This city prides itself on being green.”

  Hard-to-service

Point Place is a short, narrow street with six households that runs from Coast Highway to the ocean. On a recent visit there, I turned my car around in the first driveway because I could see no way to make it down and back.

So it’s no surprise that the waste trucks back down the street.

“Point Place was always on our hard-to-service list,” said Michelle Clark, a community relations specialist with the hauler.

“Safety is our number one priority. There are 10,000 stops and 280 are hard-to-service. Everyone is serviced at least with trash. Even the post office won’t go some places [in Laguna Beach].

“There is no place we won’t go, but we can’t do more than one [trip] in some places.

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“Laguna Beach is our most difficult city.”

But Arnold doesn’t buy that.

“They say it’s too dangerous to back down our street,” Arnold said. “But it doesn’t take a PhD. degree to realize that if Waste Management can get one truck down a street, it can get two.”

Arnold says he has fought to retain recycling, only to have it taken away permanently.

“When we moved here from Boston seven years ago, we had a recycle truck once a week, then it stopped,” Arnold said. “When I complained, it was rectified, but then the truck disappeared again.”

A third complaint resulted in a meeting with a supervisor, who Arnold says promised to restore the service. “Then I found them dumping [trash and recycling] into the same truck.”

That would frost most people.

  City in the middle

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You might think residents like Arnold could take their complaints about trash service to the city, but the city isn’t directly involved. The city’s recycling coordinator deals mostly with business recycling and tracking numbers, Public Works Director Steve May said.

Residents pay the city annually on their property tax bills for trash service, and the city pays Waste Management to provide the service. The residential rate for a single-family home is $185.52 per year. May says his department is trying to work out a solution to the on-and-off recycling issue, but insists it’s Waste Management’s decision where to provide recycling.

May says the city’s contract with the hauler allows some reduction of service, or extra charges, for hard-to-service households.

“The provision is awkwardly written,” May said. “It doesn’t say they can get out of [collecting recycling] but they can charge an extra fee.”

Clark on the other hand claims that the city approves the “hard-to-service” list and therefore bears some responsibility for which streets are on it.

Arnold complains that the city has backed up Waste Management’s refusal to provide recycling to his street, noting that his call to the city’s recycling coordinator netted a “final determination” that the street would not get recycling.

“The city is abdicating its responsibility,” Arnold said. “Most people assume that if they have a recycling bin stuff is being recycled.”

Clark points out that, in November, 2004 Arnold was notified in writing that, due to safety concerns, only one truck would be servicing the street and recycling would no longer be provided. But the bins were never removed, so the residents figured the recycling was still going on.

Waste Management spokeswoman Michelle Dummar says the hauler tried to accommodate the Point Place residents by offering to pick up recyclables on Coast Highway, but residents didn’t bring their recycling containers to the street for pickup, so that was discontinued.

Russell Garner, also of Point Place, agrees with Arnold.

“They’re charging the city for recycling, and they shouldn’t be if they’re not doing it,” Garner said.

  Reducing risks

Waste Management Route Manager Davy Clark (no relation to Michelle Clark) is responsible for figuring out how to service Laguna Beach.

Davy Clark says it’s risky enough to send one truck down some of the streets, and a second trip would give the drivers yet another chance to be injured or cause property damage if a truck lost control.

Some of “problem” streets don’t get any service at all if it rains, because the trucks lose traction on slippery roads, he said.

“We don’t want to jeopardize the drivers or property,” he said.

Davy Clark has been on the job 17 years and knows Laguna like the back of his hand. His hair-raising “tours” of the city’s difficult areas are legendary among Waste Management employees and on a recent tour I saw why.

There are some streets above Nyes Place or in Bluebird Canyon I wouldn’t want to navigate in a Mini Cooper, much less a garbage truck.

On some hard-to-service streets, the hauler uses smaller trash trucks or even pickup trucks, instead of a conventional garbage truck with a hydraulic arm able to pick up containers and empty them into the truck. The conventional garbage truck allows one worker to service an area, while the smaller trucks require two or three-man crews.

The difficult streets include cramped areas near the beach, such as Sleepy Hollow, or up in the highlands — including one hair-raising hair-pin turn stretch in upper Three Arch Bay that only a pickup truck can service. Driving up that road caused Dummar, our driver for the tour, to have a serious dizzy spell.

Both Clarks say the company has good reason to cut down on service trips in these areas.

  Frightening incident

Two years ago, a terrifying incident in which a garbage truck lost its brakes on Fern Street, which drops off precipitously, caused the company to redesign its smaller hauling vehicles with front and rear air brakes.

The driver managed to stop the truck from careening over a cliff, but suffered a heart attack from the stress. He survived and continues to drive for Waste Management, but not on that route, Michelle Clark said.

“We call it ‘Richard’s Street’,” she said of the road that almost claimed the driver’s life.

That incident may have prompted Waste Management to put more streets on the “commingled” list and further reduced the recycling service.

“Two years ago, they realized there was a problem,” said May. “They say it’s dangerous to send two trucks down those streets.”

May says that, since then, he has been trying to get an accurate list of “hard-to-service” streets.

“Some areas haven’t been recycling but have recycling lids [on containers].

“It’s up to Waste Management to take away those bins. It’s a big mistake on their part.”

The hauler may now be working to solve that problem: this week, Point Place resident Garner said his recycling bins were replaced with blue trash bins.

But there is another solution: use smaller trucks to collect recyclables on those hard-to-service streets.


CINDY FRAZIER is City Editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be reached at cindy.frazier@latimes.com


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