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Trash Recycling: It's the Law Now in L.A. : He Started It All in His Beat-Up VW Van


If every great odyssey starts with a modest first step, then the city of Los Angeles' quest to recycle its trash can be traced back to a ride around the block that self-styled hippie Gary Petersen took in his beat-up VW van.

The year was 1972--July 7, 1972, to be precise--when Petersen revved up the van and went door-to-door in his hometown of Santa Monica in an effort to obtain peoples' trash and sell it for profit.

The 18 years since then have seen Petersen, 42, go from being one of the first recyclers in Southern California to one of the most successful for-profit recyclers and environmental consultants in the United States, if not the world.

Today, Petersen is a clean-cut, bespectacled--and wealthy--businessman. His recycling company, Ecolo-haul, was acquired two years ago by Waste Management Inc., the nation's largest trash handler, for about $2 million. He tools around in a white Porsche 911 convertible. He lives with his wife and two children in Pacific Palisades when he is not traveling the world preaching the gospel of recycling.

It is impossible, environmentalists and city officials say, to imagine the ambitious recycling plan proposed for Los Angeles without crediting Petersen, and the work he has done to prod Southern Californians into thinking of recycling as an alternative to merely dumping their trash.

"He has been so influential because he has helped orient the thinking of the people in the city to look at this as all being possible," said John Stodder, an environmental aide to Mayor Tom Bradley, who signed the new citywide recycling plan into law Thursday.

"If it weren't for the pilot plans Gary designed and worked for on the Westside," Stodder continued, "we would never have done the citywide plan, I can guarantee you that."

The fact that Petersen has gotten wealthy along the way has, if anything, only helped to embellish his near saint-like status among those involved in the complicated and bothersome task of teaching the public to recycle.

"He deserves it," said Dennis Nishikawa, vice president of the city Board of Public Works.

"He put in his blood, sweat and tears when no one else was around. He introduced me and everyone else to what recycling was all about," said Nishikawa, who oversees the city's effort to engineer the nation's largest curbside recycling program, which eventually is intended to reach 720,000 homes.

"He is much too decent a man to be a saint," said City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, a longtime recycling activist. "But I don't think you'll find anybody that doesn't respect the work that he has done. I'd much rather have him get rich from recycling than from polluting."

In the beginning, things were not so rosy.

In 1972, Petersen was back from a voyage he and his wife made to 23 countries around the world, and eager to start some kind of business that was "environmentally responsible" but could make him money as well.

People thought he was crazy. And they resented his intention of making money from something traditionally done as volunteer or nonprofit work.

But Petersen makes no apologies. "I'm from the '60s," he said in an interview this week. "I wanted to do . . . something really positive in the environmental area and make a business out of it. I had to find a vehicle, and recycling was it. I would have something tangible to sell."

"I said, 'We're going to institutionalize recycling--make it something people do just like brushing their teeth. I've got to make it make money or nobody is going to listen to me.' At the time, people looked at me like I was Attila the Hun."

And that was the reaction of his friends in the environmental movement. The strangers he greeted at their doorsteps and asked if they wanted to get rid of their garbage were less charitable.

"At first, people would ask, 'What are you, some kind of communist?' " he recalled.

It took a while for things to get better, but they did, slowly. Petersen was able to quit his second job at the local Mayfair market and move his company, which he dubbed Ecolo-haul, into an office at the corner of Sepulveda and Ventura boulevards in Sherman Oaks.

Starting with a small effort in several Westside communities in the early 1970s, Ecolo-haul became one of the first coordinators in the nation of curbside recycling for single-family homes. It also set up a system of zoned collection for multifamily buildings and buy-back recycling centers.

By the early 1980s, the company operated the largest network of community drop-off centers in the nation, with 36 in Southern California. By 1983, Ecolo-haul had offices in West Los Angeles, Santa Monica and Glendale.

In 1980, Petersen designed and implemented for Santa Monica a citywide recycling program that is still regarded as the most comprehensive of its type in the nation. Ecolo-haul still recycles trash for Santa Monica and for a pilot recycling program the city of Los Angeles has begun in each council district.

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