LONG BEACH — When city leaders set out a decade ago to do something about the 360,000 tons of trash this town generates every year, they came up with a two-part plan: a recycling program environmentalists loved and a hulking incinerator they hated.
Today, the incinerator sits less than half a mile from the sea, cremating an endless stream of household and commercial waste and converting the energy to electricity.
As for the recycling program that was supposed to accompany it? "There isn't any," environmental activist Virginia Siegel laments.
Indeed, as the country's environmental consciousness is raised on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day, the local reality is this: Recycling in Long Beach is about as convenient as parking in Manhattan, and the touted incinerator is beset by pollution problems.
In a city of more than 400,000 people, there are just four places that recycle newspapers, four that recycle metal and two that recycle glass, other than redeemable bottles. Even then, some recyclers take metal cans but not newspaper, some take newspaper but not glass and others take certain types of glass but no metal.
While cities from Arcadia to Irvine have already begun curbside pickup of household recyclables, Long Beach offers none. Residents scurry around town searching for a place to do an environmental good deed and redeem some cash.
Even the city's newly hired recycling coordinator admits that he puts his sorted trash in an alley, "and someone mysteriously comes by in the middle of the night and picks it up."
But after some powerful arm-twisting by the Legislature, which has forced all cities to reduce their garbage flow, Long Beach is entering the age of recycling.
Recycling coordinator James Kuhl was hired by the city in October to organize a curbside program. He expects to have one working within a year. The program would require residents to sort their household trash--which accounts for 60% of Long Beach's solid waste--and leave it at the curb or in alleys for pickup.
The city has begun holding workshops in each City Council district to ask residents how they would prefer to recycle and has sought the help of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce to urge businesses to reduce and reuse waste that pours from the commercial sector--40% of the city's total, Kuhl says.
Meanwhile, City Hall is taking stock of itself, reviewing ways to reduce and recycle the mountains of office paper and cardboard that bureaucracy generates and to encourage such conservation habits as drinking from a ceramic mug rather than a plastic foam cup.
The city is also considering a plan to make compost of a staggering 67 tons of lawn debris harvested daily from golf course and lawn clippings, tree trimmings and street sweeping--none of which is now recycled, Kuhl says.
"The city resists the idea of recycling and puts all its effort into the incinerator," said Frank Rodgers, spokesman for the Cal State Long Beach Associated Students Inc. Recycling Center. Founded 20 years ago by a student, it is the most comprehensive recycling center in town.
"I believe the residents of Long Beach want to recycle, but it's not convenient," he said. "If the city establishes a program to make it convenient, the people would participate."
Under a recently passed state law, the city must do just that. With California approaching a trash crisis and landfills near capacity, the law requires that cities recycle 25% of what they throw away by 1995 and 50% by the year 2000 (40% in the case of Long Beach, because it has an incinerator).
Recent attempts by Long Beach officials to win exemption from state-mandated recycling failed, and for the first time in a decade, the issue is commanding the city's attention.
But that is not the way it was envisioned a decade ago, when the Southeast Resource Recovery Facility incinerator was proposed to go hand-in-hand with recycling.
The incinerator--similar to other facilities run in other communities, including the City of Commerce--was hardly resisted in Long Beach. The city promised to reuse what waste it could and burn the rest, sending a compact hunk of ash to the landfill instead of voluminous truckloads of garbage.
In turn, the incinerator would produce electricity to be sold to Southern California Edison Co., earning money to repay the $170 million in bonds borrowed to build it.
But in 1986, the facility was redesignated a "mass-burn incinerator" that had to import trash from Lakewood and Signal Hill to generate enough electricity to pay off the debt, and recycling took a back seat, said Siegel, a member of the city's Solid Waste and Recycling Advisory Committee and one of the city's most vocal recycling advocates.
"The incinerator delayed a more sound environmental program like recycling," she said. "And by the time they have to meet recycling requirements in 10 years, I'll be dead! \o7 I'll\f7 be compost!"