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New Report: Fixing LA’s Failing Commercial Waste System

Dear friends,

It sounds almost cliché at this point … but we have become a society that throws too much away. This would be problem enough, but worsening that reality is the fact that we’re burning and burying more and more of our throwaway world every year. This, of course, has significant consequences: exhaustive and unsustainable resource extraction, transportation to make products, transportation to throw away products, landfills and incinerators emitting greenhouse gases. Moreover, throughout the nation, communities actually export their waste to other cities—and other countries—because they don’t have adequate systems to manage their waste locally. So, realistically, we find ourselves at a crossroad: continue to trash our planet without adequately accounting for the externalities or move toward a zero waste society.

The idea of a zero waste society presupposes that much of the waste we throw away can be reduced, repaired and reused, or recycled—and the great news is, it can. We can develop waste-flow systems that will help protect our remaining resources, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and decrease our reliance on landfills and incinerators. We can make sure that safe and clean trucks pick up materials from our homes and businesses and that recycling facilities are good neighbors that add to the health and vitality of communities rather than hurt them. And, in the process of realizing this zero waste vision, we can create new green jobs and new green industry.

It’s all possible, but it requires hard work.

It requires developing infrastructure to effectively sort recyclables so that they can be remanufactured into new materials; it requires turning food scraps and yard trimmings into usable compost; and it requires fostering new businesses that promote the exchange and reuse of old materials. It requires ensuring that the trucks transporting our waste and recyclables are clean, and that the green jobs are livable and environmentally friendly. It requires, ultimately, developing comprehensive approaches that address the entire waste process. This is all hard work—but it’s possible and it’s necessary.

On the path to a zero waste society, Los Angeles represents both obstacle and opportunity. On the one hand, the City has made solid progress in its recycling efforts. In fact, it has the highest recycling rate of any big city. On the other hand, the raw numbers in waste are what really count and they’re staggering: Los Angeles still sends over three million tons of waste and recyclables to landfills and incinerators every year. Simply put, that is an overwhelming amount of trash—and that means the City still has a lot of work to do. Los Angeles is in need of some comprehensive solutions.

In Los Angeles, commercial waste, specifically the trash and recyclables generated in businesses and apartment complexes, makes up the largest proportion of what goes to landfills. For that reason, addressing the waste-flow system in those sectors—from pickup to processing—is fundamental to mitigating the negative impacts of its trash problem. This report examines the current system for collecting materials from commercial businesses and apartment buildings in the City of Los Angeles. The system is preventing the City from reaching its environmental and economic zero waste goals due to a lack of recycling, collection truck and green job standards. The report advocates for a rational system that would empower the City to provide recycling services to all customers, improve efficiencies, and protect public health and the environment. It’s a complicated process to be sure, but if Los Angeles does that hard work and successfully realizes its zero waste vision, the environmental and economic impacts will be potentially unprecedented.