May 5 2004 12:00 AM

Poway is meeting sate recycling mandates; why isn't San Diego?

A large, grassy stretch of land out by the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station covers 1,600 acres. Sparse trees dot the horizon like a Seurat painting, and San Clemente Canyon, home to numerous species of wildlife-deer, hawks, bobcats, coyotes-flows gracefully through the middle. A State park? Nope, it's San Diego's garbage dump.

Vehicles ranging from monstrous, company-owned dump trucks to small pickups wait obediently in line to deposit their load. Some stop at the Recycling Buyback Center or the Hazardous Materials Center that occupy the entranceway. Others lumber by impatiently. Perhaps their loads don't contain any recyclable material, but a look at the tipping deck suggests something different.

Down on the tipping deck, dump trucks regurgitate masses of refuse into a repugnant pile of unrecognizable debris. However, closer inspection reveals that this “garbage” includes paper, cardboard, glass, tires and plastic bottles, among other items, that are easily recyclable. So what are they doing in the Miramar Landfill?

The issue is one that the state of California has been trying to address for some time. The Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989 (Assembly Bill 939) created the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB) to fix the problem. The law imposed a requirement on each local government in the state to reduce the amount of solid waste disposed into landfills-by 25 percent in 1995 and 50 percent in 2000. Only eight of the 19 jurisdictions in San Diego County reached the required 50-percent diversion rate by the year 2000. The city of San Diego wasn't one of them.

Stephen Grealy, recycling specialist for the city of San Diego, says the city's inability to meet the 50-percent threshold is mainly due to the huge amount of construction and demolition waste that is generated, as well as the absence of a facility to separate such materials out of the waste stream.

Other problems also plague San Diego's recycling programs, despite what city officials insist is a good-faith effort to meet the diversion requirement. Failure to do so can result in a fine of up to $10,000 a day-a punishment that has yet to be meted out. Likewise, none of the other jurisdictions in the county that failed to meet the diversion rate were fined, and some, like San Diego, were granted a two-year extension.

Perhaps there's something to be learned from cities such as Poway, which managed to achieve a 65-percent diversion rate in 2000 (the most recent year for which concrete data is available). Annette Gonzalez, senior management analyst for the Poway Department of Public Works, says her city's success can be attributed not only to a lack of construction and demolition waste, but also to a number of programs the city has implemented, such as single-stream recycling, unlimited collection of green waste and mandatory recycling for all residential and commercial customers.

The city of San Diego has taken some similar steps. Single-stream recycling, which allows us to put all our recyclables in one container without separating them, was in place by the end of 2001. Studies credit this method with increasing the recycling rate by 20 percent.

Collection is another matter. The collection of green waste, unlike that in Poway, is unlimited for only 150,000 homes, leaving almost half of San Diego's residences without collection. Although green waste, which comprises about 8 percent of the total waste disposed, is accepted for free at the landfill, most people will not make the effort to separate and deliver their waste.

“It's a budget problem,” Grealy says.

The same is true for other recyclables. Although the city's curbside collection program is highly praised by environmental agencies such as I Love A Clean San Diego (ILACSD) and the Sierra Club, there's much room for improvement. Jeanne Davies of the Sierra Club wants to see a law passed that would require new apartment complexes to have space for recycling trucks to enter. Currently, those who have city trash collection are eligible for recycling collection, but the trucks are not allowed to stop anywhere they might create a “traffic hazard.”

“It's in action,” says Dr. Wayne Williams, recycling program coordinator for the county Department of Public Works. “The county is in the process of trying to create that ordinance, so that all family units of five or more will have that space.” However, creation of a county ordinance does not result in a similar city ordinance. Individual city councils would have to pass their own laws.

The city of San Diego seems reluctant to create recycling-related ordinances. “San Diego has always had a voluntary policy,” Grealy says. “That's always been the political environment in this city.”

But what's best for the political environment may not always be what's best for the natural environment. In 1991, San Diego County adopted a Mandatory Recycling Ordinance (MRO) for all residential, commercial and industrial sectors, and they encouraged each city to adopt an MRO of their own-Poway adopted its in 2000. San Diego chose to “do it voluntarily,” Grealy says, despite a similar ordinance being recommended to the city by a citizens' committee.

“I believe they've never really been enforced, at least in terms of fining anyone,” says Grealy of the MROs. However, just the threat of a possible fine-however weak-is what seems to have spurred the city to action. Perhaps it could do the same for individuals and, more importantly, large companies.

Big businesses generate mass quantities of waste. Some companies recycle efficiently; others do not. One employee who works in the offices of Scripps Hospital, San Diego's sixth largest employer, with 10,000 employees, told CityBeat no paper waste is recycled (a spokesperson was unable to be reached for comment). Take a look at many of the bars in Pacific Beach and you'll see glass bottles being tossed into trashcans. Several big hotels only recycle some of the items that could be recovered. Steve Militello of Evans Hotels confirmed that two of Evans' three San Diego hotels-The Lodge at Torrey Pines, the Catamaran Resort and the Bahia Resort-recycle paper, cardboard and glass. And the third? “I am unable to comment on that hotel right now because the program is not quite established,” he said. “But,” he hastened to add, “we are very committed to recycling.”

Not as committed as they would be, perhaps, with the threat of a fine hanging over their heads.

A city ordinance may also be useful when dealing with the massive excess of construction and demolition waste that's blamed for keeping San Diego from achieving the 50-percent diversion rate. It's an issue Williams has been working on for some time.

“There is an excellent market for C&D materials right now,” he says. “There is a huge demand for this material and the demand is not being met. We're importing it from Mexico while landfilling our own construction and demolition debris.

“Several jurisdictions feel that an ordinance is the way to go,” he adds. “Some cities have already drafted an ordinance that has been very successful.” One such city is San Jose, which created a construction and demolition diversion program in 2000.

“When someone comes to the city for the permit for a project, they make a deposit based on the square footage of the project and the type and quality of the material generated,” explains Stephen Bantillo, environmental services specialist for San Jose. The deposit is then returned once the contractor demonstrates that at least 50 percent of the waste has been diverted. “It's been very successful,” Bantillo boasts.

Representatives from the cities of Chula Vista and Oceanside have drafted a construction and demolition ordinance that will be put forward at the next San Diego Association of Governments meeting. “We are requesting the cities to pick it up and present it to their City Councils,” Williams says. “It's very exciting, because if the ordinance comes in, there's a good possibility that the jurisdictions will meet the 50-percent diversion rate.”

What are the chances of San Diego adopting such an ordinance?

Williams says San Diego “decided to go the policy route instead of the ordinance route.” He claims this is because “there were some reservations by the construction companies about going an ordinance route. They didn't want to be forced to [divert their waste].”

It's up to the City Council to determine whether they adopt a policy or an ordinance. In his opinion, “it wouldn't make any sense to impose an ordinance that takes effect immediately because there's nowhere to take the mixed debris.” The city is currently working on plans for a construction and demolition waste facility at Miramar. “It's a chicken-egg thing,” he explains. “Maybe if we had an ordinance, it would provide incentive for the public to support a facility... but without a facility, an ordinance is useless.”

Still, it seems the city of San Diego will need to step up the pressure if it hopes to achieve the 50-percent diversion rate by the end of 2004. Or, for that matter, by the end of 2005, the last year during which the state can grant extensions under current law.

Then what? Maybe the city will actually be forced to cough up $10,000 a day. Or maybe the law will be changed to allow yet another extension. Perhaps vehicles will still be lined up outside the Miramar Landfill, waiting their turn to unload recyclable materials into their mass grave.

Gary Gobel, landfill operations superintendent at Miramar, is fascinated with the idea that the landfill will become “the archaeological dig of the future.” Imagine what our descendents will think when they uncover what looks like evidence of total disregard for the environment.


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