ENVIRONMENT WATCH - Other than basic biological needs such as breathing and excreting, all we do is learned. We copy our parents. We are taught in school. We emulate our heroes and double-dare our friends.
Too many of us grew up tossing our garbage out, sometimes in trash bins, too often on our streets, with no thoughts of the consequences.
So not only are our highways and byways decorated with a patina of litter, but today this great nation is dotted with the blemishes of landfills, the purulent cast-offs of our consumer society.
A number of years ago governments, including those of many cities across southern California, introduced zero-waste plans. Unfortunately, some of those plans included shipping our garbage to other countries and counting it as recycling.
And, with Asian nations refusing to take it anymore, American trash is growing faster than ever before, threatening to erupt like some pestilential disease.
This month marked the tenth anniversary of Glendale’s Zero Waste Strategic Plan with a goal of 75% waste reduction by 2020 and 90% by 2030. Its current efforts to develop the Scholl Canyon dump into a gas production facility appears to be in direct contradiction with this.
Here in Los Angeles, we have the Solid Waste Integrated Resources Plan (SWIRP) from 2013, more commonly known as the City’s Zero Waste Plan which set a goal of achieving 90% diversion by 2025 and 97% by 2030.
This proposal boiled down to education and incentives to decrease consumption, improve recycling, and increase consumer and manufacturing responsibility to protect public health and the environment while maintaining equity and economic efficiency.
The parameters have shifted with the rejection of vast quantities of our garbage by foreign countries and the changes wrought by the pandemic, and no current metrics are available to measure the degree of success, or more likely failure, in moving towards zero waste.
Over the years
The State has also introduced mandates on plastics, recycling and bio-waste over the intervening years.
Individual City departments have been charged with coming up with their own solutions to achieve these metrics in their spheres of jurisdiction.
In 2017 the Zero Waste LA Franchise System was introduced with a lot of hoopla and even more opposition.
Its roll-out, combined with a move to less polluting vehicles was to supposed to eliminate 2.6 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions in the City of Los Angeles, the equivalent of taking 517,000 vehicles off the road by reducing overlapping truck routes, and reducing up to 94 percent of particulate matter emissions and up to 73 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions.
A vast majority of the complaints have been addressed and the most egregious injustices mitigated, but the franchises are facing some of the same challenges as the City’s Sanitation Bureau and companies across the country – a dearth of drivers.
And while the amount of residential waste was driven up by lock-down quarantines and working-from-home, the current downward trend will probably be exceeded by the increase from businesses. Or maybe the Omicron variant will have a say in that.
Now Glendale multi-unit residences are feeling the pain. Complaints about quadrupling of fees and reduced service as their garbage service goes to four private trash haulers and as of March, they will have to pre-sort their recycling.
This is the same story that roiled Los Angeles in 2017.
Like Los Angeles before it, the City of Glendale is selling this as an environmental initiative – diverting trash from landfills, putting cleaner-burning trash trucks on the street and creating safer conditions for refuse workers, reducing polluting trucks on the streets, fewer accidents, less congestion, and more efficient pick-ups.
But customers are seeing this as a huge hit to their wallets at a time when they are facing many other economic challenges.
Sooner or later this, too, will settle out as customers learn to reduce their trash and the franchises work out the kinks on their end including addressing unfair fees to open gates and move bins.
Playing the blame game after-the-fact will not help and may delay improvements.
Effective next week California State Bill 1323 which mandates methane emission reduction from landfills, requires full compliance by residents and businesses to recycle organic waste.
Over a million tons of food waste and yard trimmings a year enter the Los Angeles solid waste system. Multi-unit buildings account for over a quarter of compostable food waste while businesses serve up another two fifths.
The Los Angeles Sanitation department has been working with restaurants to beef up organics recycling including programs to divert utilizable food to the hungry. Last year they ran a pilot program Curb Your Food Waste LA for 18 thousand households in which all food waste (no containers and no produce labels) was collected and sent to a special anaerobic processor.
The program will be rolling out to all residential customers in the new year but, for now, unless people have been advised to do so and have the proper pail so their green bins are diverted to the appropriate facility, consumers should place only vegetable refuse – peels and parings, no food waste, meats or oil – in their green bins along with yard trimmings.
This need to comply with the State bill means that Glendale ought to spend the extra tax dollars now to address the methane problems at the Scholl Canyon Landfill properly rather than expanding the dump to ensure that the amount of methane expelled remains sufficient high to justify the expense of its proposed Biogas Renewable (not) Generation Project.
People, here and around the world, must embrace change and train themselves to be better citizens by facing the needs of our society as a whole and holding themselves responsible for their own actions.
A Me-Too moment
However, it is going to take much more than the steps enumerated above to really rein in our garbage.
It will take accountability, not only on the levels of government, but also on a personal and private level.
It will take a concerted effort from the public to demand the end of over-packaging, including the use of multiple layers and of non-recyclable materials. Including demanding that stores stop the practice of branding every loose fruit and vegetable with those hard-to-remove non-recyclable plastic stickers.
It will take retraining our previous normal into a more sustainable way of life.
In the era of Covid, this will be a challenge but we must rapidly grow the practice of consumers using their own reusable receptacles beyond just shopping bags to take-out containers and net produce sacks. Some of these bags already come with a label on which to write the produce code.
Annaliese Griffin wrote in a New York Times op-ed:
“Every new purchase puts into motion a global chain of events, usually beginning with extracting oil to make the plastic that is in everything from stretchy jeans to the packaging they come in. Those materials travel from processing plant to factory to container ship, to eventually land on my front porch, and then become mine for a time. Sooner or later, they will most likely end up in a landfill.”
This means Los Angeles must double down and move harder, faster to zero out its waste footprint. It means converting to the quarter-size bins in use already in a number of cities and making it prohibitively expensive to use more.
It means building the recycling plants here, creating the jobs here, and stopping the waste here.
For consumers it means buying less, using it fully, and then recycling. It means we insist our kids and our neighbors don’t litter – our streets, our highways, our cars, our yards.
It will definitely take commitment. To reuse, repurpose and then recycle. And to pay a little more now to ensure a better future.
It means refusing to buy over-packaged and ecologically unfriendly products and telling their manufacturers why. It means buying locally-sourced goods as much as feasible to ensure that there will be local options when we need them and to reduce the environmental impact of shipping raw materials overseas for cheap labor and then shipping back the products we want.
It means insisting all phases of manufacture comply with safe standards no matter where it the world so we can start paying American workers a living wage again.
Why worry about pollution or toxic chemicals health issues in Thailand or China? Perhaps because the atmosphere doesn’t recognize national borders and we’ve all seen that what starts in Wuhan doesn’t stay in Wuhan.
To quote Frida Berrigan in the December 19, 2021 edition of CityWatch, “I want there to be a tomorrow and a next day and a day after that.”
(Liz Amsden is an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)