Faced with a trash crisis as landfill space dwindles, the San Diego City Council on Monday decided to get serious about recycling, adopting a policy that commits the city to a dramatically different approach to waste management in the future.
After a discussion in which they enthusiastically endorsed the concept of recycling, council members unanimously approved a program under which San Diego would recycle 25% of the solid wastes it generates by mid-1992.
The centerpiece of the drive will be initiation of a curbside collection program in certain neighborhoods over the next year. About 20,000 residents will be asked to separate aluminum cans, bottles and newspapers from their trash and place the materials on the roadside for pickup. The program ultimately would be expanded citywide.
Similar programs are under way or in the planning stages in Del Mar, Solana Beach and Encinitas, as well as in numerous communities in Northern California and other states. Although some East Coast cities have passed laws making recycling mandatory, San Diego officials plan to seek voluntary participation.
Monday's action couldn't have been more timely.
Dump Is Near Capacity
The Miramar landfill--the city's only active dump--is scheduled to be at capacity by the mid-1990s, and the hunt for a new landfill site likely will be a lengthy and controversial process. Few residents are eager to have a dump in their neighborhood.
Meanwhile, a proposed trash-to-energy plant that some civic leaders hoped would relieve the impending landfill crunch is now all but dead. Just a month ago, Signal Environmental Systems Inc. pulled out of the Kearny Mesa project--known as SANDER--after investing $5 million over five years. Company officials said they felt they had lost the support of elected officials, which they viewed as imperative if they were to defeat a November ballot initiative aimed at blocking the waste-to-energy plant.
In the wake of Signal's departure, city officials have acknowledged that San Diego now lacks any long-term method of dealing with its trash dilemma, which has been compounded in recent years by a 40% per capita increase in the amount of trash generated annually. Most leaders say that a combination of approaches will be necessary to address the problem. One of those is recycling.
"There's not one single solution that is the complete answer to this crisis," Mayor Maureen O'Connor said. "But I think we all agree it is a necessity that we have some kind of recycling program in place."
Too Long to Wait?
Although pleased with the recycling plan, some council members expressed disappointment at the five-year time frame, suggesting that, with the pressing landfill problem, the need to reduce the amount of waste generated is urgent.
"I wonder if the city is being overly cautious on this," Councilman Mike Gotch said. "I don't want to see San Diego reinvent the wheel."
City officials said that they, too, are anxious to embark on the program, but cautioned that it takes time both to set up a system to carry out recycling and to get residents on the bandwagon.
"What this program is doing is reversing the normal material distribution system, and to accomplish that, you have to build an infrastructure that goes the opposite way," said Robert Epler, director of the city's Resource Conservation and Management Program.
Perhaps more challenging, Epler and other recycling experts say, is getting people accustomed to the idea of recycling. Key to the success of the city's program will be a public education campaign highlighting the environmental and community benefits of reusing materials rather than just tossing them out.
"What you have to do is change their way of looking at waste," Epler said. "That's not easy."
Buy-Back Centers Planned
In addition to the curbside collection of cans, bottles and newspapers, the city plans to encourage the establishment of buy-back centers--central locations where materials can be dropped off--and develop commercial and industrial recycling programs.
Epler said he also hopes to initiate the composting of natural vegetation like leaves, branches and grass, which account for a large portion of landfill-destined waste. Plastics, ferrous and non-ferrous metals, construction and demolition materials, all types of paper, and tires are on the list of targeted material as well.
One of the first programs Epler plans to launch will involve the recycling of white office paper used at City Hall. He plans to return to the City Council in the coming weeks with the proposed program, which he would like to see embraced by offices citywide.
In an action similar to that taken by the council, county supervisors last month directed the chief administrative officer to develop a long-range recycling plan to alleviate pressure on the five county-operated landfills, where space is expected to be exhausted by the late 1990s.
The county has an even more ambitious goal than the city--the recycling of 30% of the total waste generated within five years.