Earlier this month, the South El Monte City Council, under pressure from residents, scuttled a feasibility study on a waste-to-energy plant in the city. It was the fifth time this year that a proposal to build an incinerator in the San Gabriel Valley had been defeated or abandoned.
At its Sept. 2 meeting, the South El Monte council also voted to consider implementing a comprehensive recycling program as an alternative means of reducing the amount of waste entering local landfills.
This change in direction reflects an areawide movement as elected officials seek a less controversial option to trash-to-energy proposals.
The San Gabriel Valley Assn. of Cities' Solid Waste Management Task Force has formed a subcommittee on recycling. At a task force meeting last week, state officials explained how to establish recycling programs in the association's 31 member communities.
"We'll enable every city, if they want to, to begin a program of recycling and source separation," said Walnut Mayor Harvey Holden, chairman of the association's Solid Waste Management Task Force. "Recycling has always been proposed, but it has never been taken this seriously."
Although recycling emerged from the ecology movement of the 1970s, those familiar with the issue said the San Gabriel Valley could be among the first areas in the state where communities implement recycling more out of necessity than out of environmental concern.
"We have the most acute (waste) problem in the state," said Robert Breusch, mayor pro tem of Rosemead and chairman of the subcommittee on recycling. "I think what we do here is going to be a bellwether for the rest of the state. What's happening here is going to happen everywhere else in the next 10 to 12 years."
But as they explore recycling, San Gabriel Valley cities must navigate through a morass of contradictory opinions on several key questions. There is widespread debate as to whether recycling should be voluntary or mandatory, how much of the trash now going to landfills could be diverted through recycling and whether sufficient markets will exist for recycled materials after they are extracted.
A major impetus for cities to develop recycling programs is the state Beverage Container Recycling Act, better known as "the bottle bill." The law, which goes into effect Oct. 1, places a 1-cent deposit on soft drink and beer containers and requires that recycling centers be established within half a mile of stores that have more than $2 million a year in gross sales.
The bill also requires the state to use the money it gets from deposits on bottles that are not recycled to establish recycling programs. Proponents of recycling in the San Gabriel Valley hope that the bottle bill will serve as a springboard by raising interest in recycling to the same level it has reached in other areas of the state.
Although recycling programs have flourished in environmentally conscious bedroom communities in the San Francisco Bay area and the Westside of Los Angeles, only one San Gabriel Valley city, Claremont, collects trash at the curb for recycling.
"We're environmental slobs compared to (Northern California)," said Wil Baca of the Hacienda Heights Improvement Assn., a member of the task force subcommittee on recycling. "In the northern part of the state, that (ecology) movement has never quit since Earth Day on. It's in Southern California that we've had to reawaken that commitment, not in the public, but in the politicians."
Proponents of recycling say that the comprehensive recycling of paper, bottles, cans and the composting of yard waste could cut in half the amount of garbage going into landfills.
Small Result Seen
But skeptics, such as William L. George, an environmental scientist with the county Solid Waste Management Department, said that although he supports mandatory recycling, he thinks that it will only reduce total waste by--at best--about 7%.
"Recycling cannot have the impact on the waste stream that refuse-to-energy can because you can burn so much more of the waste stream than you can recycle," George said, adding that residential waste makes up only one-third of the 45,000 tons of garbage going into Los Angeles county landfills daily.
"Of that third, only 20% can be readily recycled," he said. "That's 3,000 tons a day. That's if everybody in the county recycled everything. That's if nobody threw away any newspapers and nobody threw away any cans, which isn't going to happen. . . . (Even if it did) it wouldn't be significant."
Responded Baca: "The people that are saying you can only get 7% to 10%, when they say recycling, they're talking about the Boy Scout approach. You have to get involved in serious recycling efforts and large quantities. You have to restructure the entire waste management industry.