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Changing Our Habits

December 27, 1987

San Diego County recently took another of the many steps needed to resolve the growing trash crisis. The Board of Supervisors approved an ambitious recycling program that is likely to affect not only the unincorporated areas but also lead the way for most of the county's cities.

The aim is to reduce by 30% the amount of trash disposed of at county landfills within five years. The board has not ruled out mandatory measures to accomplish the goal.

The county's plan is the latest, and perhaps the most significant, in a growing list of local recycling programs. The City of San Diego also approved a recycling program last year, a voluntary one that is designed to reduce by 25% what is buried at the city's nearly full Miramar landfill. In addition, the cities of Del Mar, Encinitas, Oceanside and Solana Beach have or are working on recycling programs.

By Jan. 1, major supermarkets are required by state law to have established recycling centers to collect most aluminum, glass and plastic beverage containers. More than 140 of the centers, which will pay a penny for each container, are expected to be open within the county, many in supermarket parking lots.

Progress on the trash front, however, was not without its setbacks this past year. Passage of Proposition H, the clean-air initiative, virtually eliminated the alternative of a major trash-burning plant within the City of San Diego. Also, a Superior Court judge threw out the contract between the county and the company planning to operate the San Marcos trash-to-energy plant. How long that will delay the plant--which would process most of North County's trash through recycling, incineration and burial--is not known.

In the meantime, county administrators estimate that each resident is generating about 1.6 tons of solid waste annually and that the five county-operated landfills will be full by the late 1990s.

Building more landfills is problematic and unpopular, and alternatives to landfills come slowly.

For instance, it's been five years since the first contract for the San Marcos trash-to-energy plant was signed and, without further delays, it is not expected to be operating before 1990.

So the pressure for a successful recycling effort is intense. Many of the details in the county and city plans have yet to be worked out, and elected officials are likely to face some difficult decisions when they are presented with the costs.

But the county holds an important key to successful recycling. Because it controls five landfills, it will set the tone. Many cities are waiting to see what shape the county program takes before implementing their own.

If the county requires that recyclable materials be separated out before trash is dumped into the landfill, residents and businesses in the 17 cities and the unincorporated areas that use county landfills would effectively be forced to sort their trash. This would probably not be popular, but it is an option that will have to be weighed carefully against the alternatives.

In the meantime it is up to each of us to start changing our habits, to get into the practice of at least sorting out beverage containers now that recycling centers for them will be readily available.

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