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The Offal Predicament: No Place to Put Garbage

July 12, 1987|Forest Tennant | Forest Tennant is an associate professor of public health at UCLA and a West Covina city councilman.

WEST COVINA — Vociferous public outcry has derailed plans to incinerate garbage in Los Angeles County as the solution to a shortage of landfill space.

While opponents herald victory in defeating garbage burners proposed in Los Angeles and Pomona, on grounds that the cure would be worse than the disease, we still have the disease. Los Angeles County produces 45,000 tons of garbage per day, and without question our landfill capacity will be exhausted in less than seven years.

But a shortage of garbage disposal facilities has concerned government planners for years. So why are we now in this predicament, and what do we do about it?

For most of this century, municipalities have simply buried all forms of waste in a local landfill or "town dump." These facilities aroused little public attention, much less concern, because space was plentiful. Furthermore, landfills were inexpensive to operate and seemed safe. There was no real incentive to develop alternatives.

The end of long-term, peaceful coexistence with landfills stems from the countless consumer products cherished by all Americans--the plastics, chemicals, metals, fabrics and fuels that provide modern-day food, clothing, shelter, transportation and entertainment. Our "necessities" now include throw-away cameras, electronic toys and designer clothes among a host of products that when concentrated as waste can producing toxic residues.

The Love Canal disaster in the late 1970s was a a graphic illustration of what can happen when landfills go bad. That environmental catastrophe caused chemical burns, chromosome damage, a high incidence of spontaneous abortions and a cancer rate about 30 times the national average. Never again will landfills be accepted near home sites.

In Los Angeles County, public opposition has forced closure of some landfills, restricted expansion of others and forestalled opening of any new ones. All toxic waste now generated in Southern California, between the Tehachapis and the Mexican border, must now be trucked to toxic dump sites in Kern or Ventura counties or Arizona. The long distance between source and repository has increased illegal dumping of toxics in sewers, vacant lots, ditches and backwoods areas.

Despite Los Angeles' smog problem, area planning called for 18 giant garbage burners in the Los Angeles Basin as the solution to our garbage problem. To compound matters, most of the burners were to be built in the San Gabriel Valley, where 50%-70% of the county's garbage is currently buried in landfills, and where air quality exceeds federal standards on more than 120 days each year.

With some notable exceptions, the response of elected officials to the demise of landfill capacity in Los Angeles County has been deplorable.

In 1984, the California Waste Management Board paid public tax dollars to a prominent political-consulting firm to tell the board how to get the public to accept garbage burning as the solution. In a document entitled "Political Difficulties Facing Waste-to-Energy Conversion Plant Siting," government officials and politicians are advised to use the term "waste-to-energy" rather than "garbage burner," to choose sites in low-income areas, to develop "personality profiles" of opponents and to hire public-relations firms to convince the public that there is no alternative. Until recently, a large number of elected officials have supported the giant garbage burners.

One big inducement has been financial. If put into service, the burners would produce handsome dividends to their builders and operators--and contributions to their political backers.

The rush to garbage-burners as the solution for waste disposal has caused a near vacuum of alternative plans or concepts.

Many of the answers are directly related to how many of the alternatives to landfilling and burning we are willing to institute. Mandatory source separation and recycling of some waste products could significantly reduce the need to burn or bury waste. Tokyo, a city with about the same population as Los Angeles County, has a mandatory, effective source-separation recycling program. Tokyo residents must put out separate piles of bottles, paper, plastic containers and degradable material.

Composting of biodegradable waste, as demonstrated in some pilot projects throughout the world, is another appealing technique that may have merit. Composting could reduce landfill requirements by up to 50%.

Despite the public's opposition to garbage burning in the Los Angeles Basin, even this technology could be used as a last resort to reduce the demand for landfills as long as the burners are placed outside the urban area. But if all alternatives are seriously pursued, the need for new landfills will still exist--the inevitable non-degradable, non-recyclable residues from all the alternatives, including burning, must eventually be buried someplace, since ocean dumping is now banned.

The answer must come from a new cooperation between cities, rather than by development of schemes to dump or burn waste in someone else's backyard. The county's cities must band together to force the state Legislature to mandate alternatives and find sites for an adequate number of safe landfills, far from urban areas.

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