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Op Ed: Recycling must rise in L.A.

LOS Angeles may soon run out of space for our garbage unless city officials enact smart planning policies immediately. Every year Angelenos generate 10.4 million tons of household and commercial waste and recyclable materials. We send nearly 4million tons of that waste to landfills, which is about 2,000 pounds of waste per person. Of this waste, 70 percent comes from workplaces and apartment buildings – where many Angelenos don’t have the opportunity to recycle.

Regional landfill space is about to shrink dramatically. Puente Hills, the nation’s second-largest landfill, is scheduled to close in two years. Due, in part, to the shrinking landfill capacity, city officials are considering ways to improve the recycling system for workplaces and apartments. This is smart because most of what Angelenos throw away can be easily recycled or composted. Recycling is not only more cost-effective than landfilling, but it also helps save energy, reduces air pollution, protects biodiversity, conserves water and generates jobs.

While the city’s efforts to increase recycling make sense, there are those who propose doing nothing. Others propose developing waste-to-energy projects, often called “waste conversion technologies,” that threaten public health, are of great financial cost and offer few environmental benefits.

Only a small fraction of the material generated by L.A.’s businesses and apartments is actually suitable for waste-to-energy conversion. In fact, more than 89 percent of L.A.’s waste is recyclable or cannot be broken down by burning. Doing nothing or burning our trash are not real options, especially for a city that wants to become the greenest city in the country.

If we fail to manage our trash, we fail to manage our resources – and the solution to our waste problem lies in waste reduction, reuse and recycling. Thankfully, city leaders, including Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, agree and have adopted a plan to make L.A. a zero-waste city by 2030.

A critical step for the city will be restructuring the waste management system now servicing our businesses and apartment complexes. While the city of Los Angeles has developed an effective system for managing residential waste and recycling, the commercial and multi-family system operates without adequate oversight by the city, and that allows hauling companies to get away with offering substandard recycling collection programs.

If you ask Angelenos, many will tell you they don’t have the option to recycle at their apartment or at work. That’s because haulers are not currently required to offer recycling. Haulers can also charge a variety of rates to take away waste.

In some parts of the city you will find one customer paying twice as much as another a few miles away for the same service. Additionally, haulers serving L.A. are exempt from an important air quality regulation in the region. As a result, these companies drive dirtier trucks across our freeways and through our neighborhoods.

L.A. can and must do better.

Local environmental, business, labor, community and political leaders have come together under the banner of the Don’t Waste LA coalition to push for comprehensive reform of the waste and recycling system servicing L.A.’s businesses and apartment buildings. The coalition advocates for transforming the current permit system into a competitive franchise.

A competitive franchise system would create a contractual partnership between high-performing commercial waste haulers and the city to ensure that each geographic area in the city is serviced at the highest possible standards. In return for that business, the hauler would commit to the city’s recycling goals, clean trucks – and, importantly, fair rates for businesses and apartment owners. Creating a level playing field for the companies responsible for hauling away our recyclables and trash provides greater accountability to waste collection and, by increasing our recycling, creates thousands of good local jobs.

By increasing recycling in L.A. we can reduce the impacts of those higher costs and produce thousands of badly needed jobs. Recycling is fundamental to a sustainable vision for L.A. and should be the cornerstone of our waste management plan – to save money, produce jobs and help protect our resources.

Adriano Martinez is an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council in Los Angeles.