Amid warnings of an impending trash disposal crisis, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday took the first step toward developing a regional recycling program that could require residents and businesses to separate aluminum cans, glass, paper and other recyclable materials from the rest of their garbage.
With Supervisor Susan Golding telling her colleagues, "tomorrow's crisis is here today," the supervisors unanimously directed Chief Administrative Officer Norman Hickey's staff to develop a long-range recycling plan aimed at reducing the amount of solid waste in county landfills by 30% within five years.
Under Tuesday's action, a task force including environmentalists, community groups and business officials will study various recycling plans over the next two months, after which Hickey will return to the board with a specific comprehensive proposal. The activities to be studied include the potential curb-side collection of recyclable materials, so-called "source separation" of garbage at residences and businesses alike, and the composting of natural vegetation such as leaves, grass and tree branches, rather than dumping them in landfills.
Recycling No Real Answer
County administrators estimate that each resident generates about 1.4 tons of solid waste annually, producing a countywide total of 3.3 million tons of garbage a year. With the total increasing by about 10% a year, the capacity of the five county-operated landfills is expected to be exhausted by the late 1990s.
New landfill sites, trash-to-energy facilities and other emerging waste-disposal technologies figure prominently in the county's long-range approach to its garbage problem, county officials said. Recycling, no matter how successful, cannot solve the problem, they acknowledge, but can add years to the life of local landfills, thereby giving the county more time to search for solutions.
"Recycling is not the ultimate answer, but it does buy us time," Golding said. "Besides, if we can substantially reduce the amount of waste we have to deal with at the front end of the process, it makes sense to do so."
Only about 5% of San Diego's solid waste is recycled, according to county figures. Although more aggressive advertising of local buy-back recycling centers will be among the measures studied by the task force, most of the supervisors said they doubted that voluntary recycling programs would markedly improve that figure.
Instead, they argued, mandatory steps may be necessary to reach the program's goal of reducing by 30% the amount of solid waste that enters the county's landfills or other waste treatment facilities by 1992.
'Public Not Sensitized'
"It's a fact of life that the public is not sensitized to the problem," Supervisor Brian Bilbray said. "They feel it's someone else's problem, that landfills are something they don't have to worry about. It's not nice, it's not politically popular . . . but mandatory source separation is the only answer."
Golding concurred, adding that opposition to mandatory recycling requirements perhaps could be alleviated by emphasizing that the trash-disposal issue "comes down to a public health question . . . of potentially crisis proportions."
Noting that any county ordinance would affect only the region's unincorporated areas, Supervisor John MacDonald argued that "we'd be going only half a loaf" if recycling programs were limited to those portions of the county. The City of San Diego disposes of most of its waste at its Miramar landfill, but other local incorporated cities deposit their trash in county landfills.
Asked whether the county has any authority over cities that dump trash in county landfills, County Counsel Lloyd Harmon Jr. said he believes that such cities probably could be forced to comply with any recycling restrictions imposed by the board. Harmon, however, said that he needed to research the question further.
Golding, however, said she is confident that the county could at least indirectly force compliance with any recycling regulations it enacts.
"We can't require other cities to do mandatory recycling, but we certainly can control what goes into our landfills," Golding said. "We can say to those cities, 'Do whatever you want, but if you want to dump it in our landfills, it has to be in this form.' "
While the specifics of the plan to be presented to the supervisors for action this fall remain to be worked out, Golding said Tuesday that it could include provisions such as separate trash collection days for recyclable materials, and requirements that grass and vegetation cuttings be separated for composting.
Golding also suggested that the county be required to purchase recycled materials whenever feasible and urged that the county consider pushing for state legislation requiring supermarkets and other businesses to use biodegradable bags and packages.
"Any time you ask people to change their habits, there's going to be some grumbling about cost and inconvenience," Golding said. "But however you look at it, the citizens of San Diego are going to pay, whether it's through the cost of biodegradable packages being passed through to consumers or through the increased cost of landfills or other disposal plans. By waiting, all we do is make the situation worse."