Can L.A. save the planet? City's "zero waste" plan could be a model

L.A.'s ambitious plan to divert 90 percent of waste by 2025 isn't just about recycling. It's about remaking a city

Published October 8, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)


The Zero Waste International Alliance defines its goal as “ethical, economical, efficient and visionary," and also as a way to "guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use.”

If it sounds utopian, well, it is. It's a goal, after all. But 11 years after Los Angeles first adopted the “zero waste” framework, the city has put in place a sweeping new waste-management system, Recycle LA, that's guided by the zero-waste philosophy in the abstract, but is also fleshed out in ways that meet a wide range of more immediate goals, where progress — or lack thereof — can be measured, compared and tracked against expectations.

Translating the abstract into a nuts-and-bolts plan was largely the world of a wide-ranging coalition called Don't Waste LA, pulled together by the LA Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) in the late 2000s.

At the time, Hillary Gordon was chair of the Zero Waste Committee at the Los Angeles Chapter the Sierra Club. “A lot of zero waste work up until this point had been at the level of 'what can people do individually in their lives to take responsibility for the waste they are generating?'” she recalled in a recent interview.

What really impressed me, when I was told about the goal of this coalition, was that this was really addressing it at the systemic level — the huge level of, 'what you do when have a city as big as Los Angeles, and 4 million Angelenos who want to recycle, but have all kinds of impediments in actually doing so?'”

Recycle LA sets a goal of diverting 90 percent of the city's trash away from landfills by 2025, just eight years from now. But how this will happen has been worked out in granular detail, including a geographic franchise system for recycling that replaces an unregulated free-for-all market.

“It was arguably the most thoroughly vetted policy in the history of the city,” said Robert Nothoff, LAANE'S director of waste and recycling campaigns. That vetting applied both to applicants for the recycling franchises and public outreach, a process that unfolded over the course of seven years, Nothoff said. Participants played a major role in turning a broad framework of principles into a detailed, workable plan.

In a preview factsheet, Don't Waste LA highlighted some of the plan's key plan benefits:

  • Recycling for all city residents and businesses, building on the existing single-family “three-bin” model, which will divert 1 million tons annually from landfills, eliminate 2.6 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions (equivalent to taking 517,000 vehicles off the road), and promote partnerships with food rescue and reuse organizations to process more than 1 million tons of food scraps and yard trimmings that are thrown away annually.
  • Promoting green jobs by improving the health, safety and incomes of more 6,000 current waste-handling and sorting workers, and potential expansion to create an additional 2,000 jobs in organics and composting. Hauling employees will be protected from toxic emissions coming into their trash trucks’ cabs.
  • Reducing air pollution and other neighborhood impacts by replacing approximately 800 diesel trucks with clean fuel fleets (reducing up to 94 percent of dangerous particulate matter) and eliminating duplication, producing efficient routes that reduce traffic congestion and street wear-and-tear.

It's natural to think of recycling in terms of classical environmental concerns, which were certainly deeply involved here. But L.A.'s ambitious new plan had a much more diverse range of participants, with a wide range of specific interests and interrelationships. 

A Diverse Coalition

Nothing illustrates that better than Pacoima Beautiful, an environmental justice organization representing a low-income community in the San Fernando Valley, largely inhabited by people of color, that is currently home to 14 landfills. Pacoima is especially burdened by the existing system, and will benefit substantially by seeing it change. 

“The presence of landfills alone is enough to cause health impacts on the community members that live here, but they come with other things — the diesel trucks that are traveling to the neighborhood,” said Yvette Lopez, Pacoima Beautiful's deputy director. “There's also a lot of community members that work at the site, and they weren't necessarily at some point the safest places to work. ... They already live in a place that is hazardous to their health, and now they're going to go spend the majority of their working day ... in a place that is also a threat to their health.”

Places like Pacoima face a basic contradiction, Lopez says: It is often low-consumption communities like hers that bear the worst burdens of the high-consumption society around them. “We've been conserving, because that's what we have to do. Our incomes are lower; we may not have houses so we are living in smaller spaces that don't require so much water and so much energy, or that produce so much waste,” she said. At the same time, “When it comes to waste, we see it come down our streets every single day. ... It's impacting our lives and impacting our health.

“We need to be better, as a region. We need to build that into the culture of L.A. The car is unfortunately, a huge part of the culture of L.A." Composting and recycling can also become central to the culture, she said. “We know that it's going to take a major cultural shift, but this is a big step in the right direction,” Lopez said. “If we can pull this off in the city of L.A., there's no reason why any other city shouldn't be able to pull it off.”

Maurice Thomas is a waste management worker who's been deeply involved with Don't Waste LA. Although he's well compensated as a diesel mechanic, he knows plenty of other workers who aren't so fortunate. The new plan's recycling franchise system brings all waste management workers under the city's living-wage protections, along with other protections — a powerful argument in its favor, in terms of social justice and basic equity.

What drew Thomas to the Don't Waste LA campaign? His response was simple. “The no. 1 thing was the living wage,” Thomas said. “We're in an industry that takes in as much [money] as the NFL. The NFL is a $14-billion-a-year industry," roughly the same as the waste management industry. .... So why is it that [for] those who are not properly represented, why are the wages below living wages?”

His second concern was the work environment in his industry, especially for workers who aren't properly represented. “Those work conditions are truly unsatisfactory, by my standards, and pretty much should be by anyone's standards,” he said. “I'm quite sure that when you take your lunch, you wouldn't want to have to fight off roaches, or rats or mice while you eat.” Working conditions quickly lead back to wage and benefit issues, though. “To be in that kind of work environment, at some time you're going to get ill. For you to have to have to get a payday loan to go to the doctor, that's not cool by my standards,” Thomas said. “I've known employees that have worked for 18 years and they're still under $10 an hour. How can you raise a family on $10 an hour?"

Some of what workers experience in the waste management industry is illegal, but with so many small companies competing in a largely unregulated market, flouting the law is routine. Kevin Riley, director of research and evaluation at UCLA's Labor Occupational Safety and Health Program (UCLA LOSH) has been involved in Don't Waste LA from its formative stage. “We had had a few student interns over a couple of summers ... go out and document some of the health and safety hazards that workers in the industry were facing,” he said. “We became fairly concerned about high rates of injury and illness."

Many problems encountered were violations of state standards supposedly enforced by California's Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which lacks adequate staffing and resources. So as Riley explained, Don't Waste LA was crafted to reinforce workplace standards through the language of the ordinance. “What the new program is trying to do is essentially level the playing field and take away competition at that level, and say the safety of the workforce is just as important as environmental issues concerns,” he said.

Another oft-neglected aspect of waste systems is the subject of food policy, given that “a third of the municipal waste stream is comprised of organic waste, and the majority of that is food,” according to Claire Fox, executive director of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. Her group joined the Don't Waste LA campaign late in the process “as a voice for organic waste and food waste recycling opportunities,” Fox explained, and has stayed involved in an advisory role. Since organic landfill waste produces methane gas — which is roughly 30 times worse than carbon dioxide in terms of global warming — the downside of neglecting it is enormous.

Recovering food that would otherwise be thrown away represents the other extreme, and interest in it is booming, Fox noted. “One thing our organization is really interested in is building all kinds of different tiers of infrastructure to truly absorb that massive quantity of food that's being wasted.” Community composting systems are one example: In New York, food scraps are collected at farmers markets, then transported to community-level composting hubs.

How LA Waste Policy Evolved

In 1943, in the midst of World War II, Los Angeles initiated separate collection of organics and recyclables in its residential trash collection. Eighteen years later, in 1961, conservative Democrat Sam Yorty was elected mayor, running on a "populist" platform of ending the practice, characterized as an onerous bureaucratic imposition.

Fast forward another two decades, and everyone realized that Southern California was running out of landfill space. One “innovative” solution was waste-to-energy incineration. This led to the proposed Los Angeles City Energy Recovery project in South Central L.A., which was fiercely opposed by local residents, due to its potentially dire health impacts. They formed Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, one of the country's first environmental justice community groups, and eventually defeated the proposal in 1987, with support from a wide range of allies, whose response stunned the political establishment.

Two years after that, in 1989, California set the goal of 50 percent waste reduction by 2000. A historic corner had been turned.

In 2001, the state's Integrated Waste Management Board adopted a strategic plan aimed at creating “a 'zero-waste California' where the public, industry, and government strive to reduce, reuse, or recycle all municipal solid waste materials back into nature or the marketplace.” In 2006, L.A. adopted the RENEW LA Plan, which identified 12 goals to set the city on the path to zero waste, which was defined as an overall diversion rate of 90 percent or more by the year 2025. Later that year it committed to implementing a Solid Waste Integrated Resources Plan (SWIRP), which drew in more than 3,000 stakeholders in 256 public outreach meetings.

“What SWIRP really did was lay out what has to happen; it didn't really lay out how to make it happen,” Gordon said. When she joined Don't Waste LA, on the other hand, an actual model was developed. “That's where folks started really zeroing in on this idea of a franchise.

“The RENEW LA plan was limited almost exclusively, as was SWIRP, to the issue of landfill diversion, which is hugely central,” Gordon said. “But what we discovered, as we started looking, [was that] there are few industries with more ripple effects through myriad dimensions of life.”

At the time, almost anyone could get into waste disposal. There were roughly 125 waste hauling companies in Los Angeles, making it impossible for the city to effectively supervise or regulate them. A cutthroat race-to-the-bottom mindset prevailed. Pricing was irregular — often discriminating against small business — while recycling was hit-or-miss. Duplicative routes hit neighborhoods hard. Gordon's West L.A. neighborhood was typical. “We were being serviced by probably at least eight different companies,” she said. “We had trash trucks coming down the street multiple times a day, every day of the week: One company picking up a one building, and then later that afternoon another company picking up at the building next door. It was just such a crazy system.” The trucks involved were also unregulated, high-polluting diesels that take a heavy toll on roadways, more than 9,000 times the impact of an SUV.

“To make matters worse,” said Earth Justice attorney Adrian Martinez, “you had a situation where people in apartment buildings couldn't recycle, and businesses — some had [recycling], some didn't. It was just a really chaotic system [that] served the interests of waste hauling companies, but not the interests of the people living in the city.”

In the existing system, recycling simply didn't make economic sense, Nothoff said. "It was much cheaper for haulers to pick up the trash, take it to a landfill, and be done. It was prohibitively expensive for a lot of the apartment complexes and commercial businesses to recycle,” he said, because “the haulers didn't have any financial incentive to invest in the infrastructure.”

But that wasn't the end of the perversity. “The structure of the system was designed to allow these waste companies to direct their dirty trucks to L.A., instead of sending their cleaner trucks,” Martinez said. “Anyone with a truck and who met minimal requirements could play.”

“We did exhaustive research, market analysis, and industry research to understand how the industry worked,” Nothoff said. “It became abundantly clear, as we really looked at the market, that you have to be able to trigger capital investment. This is not DVDs or doughnuts. This is virtually a utility.

“We did the research, we looked at the fact that the highest performing cities [in California] were exclusive franchise models: San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, were all exclusive franchises,” Nothoff explained. “If you want to create a model in which you have a race to the top rather than a race to the bottom, you have to create some business certainty in an environment that allows for investment and high levels of transparency and accountability.”

There was fierce opposition from the L.A. Chamber of Commerce, as well as large industry associations, dominated by larger members who benefited from pricing discounts. “Small businesses were paying four or five times as much as some of these larger businesses,” Nothoff recalls. “We started to identify some additional small business partners,” who also joined the coalition.

In the end, it was the strength and tenacity of the coalition, the quality of their research and the persistence of their organizing that won out. But it was also the foundation of earlier efforts as well — the long history of recycling efforts cited above, as well as LAANE's history of collaborative campaigns on issues like the local living wage.

Last Thoughts

Nationally, Matt Grossman and David Hopkins argued in their 2016 book "Asymmetric Politics: Ideological Republicans and Group Interest Democrats" (Salon review here) that the Democratic Party is focused on producing concrete solutions for citizens whereas the Republican Party is obsessed with conservative ideological purity. In one sense, the example of Recycle LA and the Don't Waste LA Coalition matches their description of how Democratic Party policymaking works — a diverse coalition of groups played a crucial role in developing and fighting for the new recycling model, and won in part by doing extensive empirical research, and implementing a prolonged consultative stakeholder process, in which nitty-gritty problem-solving concerns dominated.

Yet Don't Waste LA can also be seen as an ideological project aimed at remaking the incoherent existing system, to meet a broad, coherent range of progressive goals: protecting the environment, improving quality of life for industry workers and low-income communities, promoting green jobs, building a more robust food recovery system and so forth. This plan will reshape Los Angeles in some fundamental ways over time. So there is an implicit, bottom-up ideology one can see emerging from L.A.'s recycling story — and others like it, as well.

I emailed David Hopkins about this issue and he wrote back:

Even this ambitious and ideologically-flavored plan is ultimately in service of a specific quantifiable outcome — the reduction of waste by 90%. Even for its proponents, the ultimate measure of the plan's success is ultimately empirical: how close does it get to this goal, and at what cost? An emphasis on the concrete, observable implications of policy change tends to keep left-of-center politics from becoming philosophical or abstract, and encourages engagement with applied research and expertise.

Perhaps. Or perhaps philosophy can be made stronger through sustained engagement with the real world. In any case, the story of Recycle LA is only beginning to unfold, and its lessons for progressive politics are sure to be fascinating. 


By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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