HUNTINGTON PARK, CALIF. -- recycling has an environmentally friendly image. Reusing the basic materials of everyday life to ensure a sustainable future for the planet has almost becomes God's work. It has also become big business, especially in places of enormous consumption and waste like Los Angeles.
Some 20 years ago, when L.A. drew up its master plan, the recycling industry hardly existed. Today industrial facilities that process glass, metal and concrete are mushrooming. But some people living in Los Angeles have a hard time seeing recycling's green image. Their problem? They live near the plants.
"There's always glass in the air here," complains Mercedes Arambula, whose home in the southeastern part of the metropolis is catty-corner from a huge Container Recycling facility. Mounds of broken glass rise to twice the height of an adult in the yard. Skip loaders constantly fill open truck trailers with it.
"I've lived here 18 years," she says. "My kids have asthma now, and my littlest one, who's 1 1/2, is always sick. I won't even let them play in the yard anymore. The trees around my house have all died anyway."
A neighbor, Ana Cano, wipes her finger across the dusty windshield of a parked van in front of her house. It sparkles and feels grainy. "Little by little, we're breathing this in," she says. "I feel like my lungs are filling up with glass."
A little farther down the main corridor of the city's industrial heartland, Alameda Street Metal Corp. crushes used cars, trucks and metal appliances. These hunks of recycled metal travel to the other side of the Pacific, part of the burgeoning global economy of trash.
The bone-jarring thumps of the metal crusher are cracking the driveways and walls of the homes of Epifania Oliveria and Thelma Diaz. A thin film of oil coats their yards, and they say that little metal granules push up through the skin rashes of neighborhood children.
When the women complained to city authorities, they were defeated by the most local of all laws -- zoning regulations. Southeast L.A. is divided into many small cities, and the plant is located in Lynwood, in an area zoned industrial, while their homes and the school across the street are in Los Angeles, zoned residential.
"The city's message to us was that we live in the wrong place. In their eyes, we just shouldn't be there," Diaz says. Ana Cano got the same message when Los Angeles City Councilwoman Gloria Molina came out to look at their homes. "We have to expect this, she told us, because we live in an industrial neighborhood," Cano recalls.
Molina's office chose not to comment. Mary Greybill, a public relations consultant for Alameda Street Metals, points to the construction of a wall separating houses from the facility. "The company has tried to accommodate its operations to meet the concerns of community residents," she says. "We don't operate the crusher after 4 p.m." The company has also contributed hundreds of dollars to the Watts Century Latino Organization and donated supplies to its street-sweeping activities. Olivaria feels the actions are an effort to buy off neighborhood opposition.
Oliveria's husband drives a lunch truck, making stops at recycling plants throughout southeast L.A. Almost everyone on his street is a factory worker. They know the plants mean jobs -- but have started to ask at what price.
"We need to work," Diaz says. "But these places have to respect the people in the community which surrounds them. The bottom line is that our community is poor, black or brown, and immigrant. Can you imagine a metal recycler in Santa Monica or Hollywood?"
Recycling is exempted from many pollution regulations because it is viewed as environmentally positive. Recyclers do not need discharge permits for pollutants, for instance, nor are they covered by the land-use regulations in the county master plan. "Regulations are simply not applied to potentially harmful businesses which are located in low-income communities of color, particularly in southeast Los Angeles," says Carlos Porras, Southern California director of Communities for a Better Environment.
Porras' organization, which has worked with neighbors of the recycling plants since 1993, cut its teeth on a gritty, four-year campaign of neighborhood opposition to Aggregate Recycling Systems, a concrete recycler in the Huntington Park area of Los Angeles. The company's refusal to address the concerns hardened neighborhood attitudes. Activism by local residents made the recycler a political leper at city hall, and the city council finally declared the facility a public nuisance. A mountain of discarded concrete still overshadows the neighborhood, but residents have stopped the operation completely.
"The city council thought this concrete recycling business would be the first of many such clean and green facilities," says Dean Hickman, who has fought against the concrete mountain from the beginning. "But we not only organized our own neighborhood in response, now we're going to the neighborhoods around other plants and helping them get organized as well."
Maybe the greenest thing produced by proliferating recyclers will be a new kind of movement for environmental justice.