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China Has Designs on Ventura County's Trash : If we don't pay close attention, our local refuse just might be turned into a major international commodity.

July 08, 1993|RICHARD KAHLENBERG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You can't imagine my shock the other day when I found out that a man, considered by some people to be America's greatest journalist, has been mucking about in the trash north of here on California 33.

Don't get me wrong. John McPhee, The New Yorker magazine writer, is a hero of mine. Still, I felt what only can be called great alarm when I read his report on tire recycling at a site not far from my turf, just over the county line.

But my enjoyment of a fancied competition between myself and McPhee evaporated as soon as I learned that even bigger players were moving in on my turf: the People's Republic of China.

The PRC, in cahoots with California-based Pace Enterprises, is interested in our trash. They want every bit that we produce in the county, every day, to take to a huge recycling facility in Hainan, China. Seriously.

Now, some people might think it's a great idea: They want it, we don't know what to do with it, so what's the problem? But the issue goes much deeper.

This kind of news puts into an entirely new perspective the hotter and more genuine contest between Waste Management Inc. and the Coalition To Stop Weldon Canyon Dump.

Waste Management wants to just bury it, making money by charging us to get our garbage out of sight.

The coalition, made up of environmentalists, flirts with the concept of shipping our trash out of the county by rail--until we can tool up local industry to turn detritus into plastic lumber and paper wallboard.

The city of Ventura tells its ratepayers that it has to assess higher fees because "recycling costs extra," and thus probably slows the whole effort down.

And high-tech garbage separating facilities are studied--and studied and studied--for possible sites in Oxnard and Camarillo.

Meanwhile, in Hainan, they're sending out freighters to scour the U. S. West Coast for absolutely every tin can and toothpick they can bring back--unseparated--to serve as raw material for factories. Those factories, in turn, will ship them back to America as appliances in neat little crates.

So what does this mean?

It's no longer an oxymoron to characterize what we throw away as a valuable commodity. And we are now in danger of losing--or rather, of giving away--our national resources. I'm not referring to natural resources--they've already been chewed up. I'm talking about what's left.

For an idea, consider this: The steel of every building constructed in the past 10 years in America has been made from scrap. What's more, the Chicago Board of Trade is about to begin listing used paper and used plastic next to grain futures.

The message, to anyone who missed it, is clear: It's wake-up time. Somebody in this county had better get very serious about recycling soon, or there won't be anything left to argue over. While we citizens weren't paying close attention, our local trash got turned into a major international commodity.

"While the Hainan Recycling Project breaks new ground . . . it may be indicative of a much larger trend," Kay Martin, director of the Ventura County Solid Waste Management Department, says in a recent report. It is very likely, she wrote, "that other proposals for the exportation of unsegregated and unprocessed municipal solid waste will be both commonplace and competitive within five years."

That's a polite way of saying that our local governments, pressed as they are for cash to solve the waste problem--and faced with stiff fines from the state if they don't--may soon be getting offers for refuge they can't refuse.

Says Eric Werbalowsky, formerly a recycling expert with the city of Ventura: "The Coalition (against Weldon Canyon) deserves credit for getting the county really interested in recycling. We need jobs, not landfills. The politicians wake up when they hear crowds roaring approval of the way recycling creates jobs and land-filling doesn't."

The state of California has added a little push by declaring our entire county a Recycling Industry Zone. This, of course, is related to the state's efforts to attract industry, by cutting red tape and otherwise supporting businesses that Californians had turned up their noses at before the collapse of the defense industry.

I hope everybody on all sides of the Weldon Canyon fracas, as well as the backers of the various other high-tech recycling installations, will get together quickly. They need to work out a way to reclaim every ounce of national resources from the county's waste stream, before it is exported or buried.

Because if we all don't get involved in this sort of thing--minimally by separating our trash and buying U. S. products made with recycled content--the jobs will leave on the same boat with the aluminum cans and plastic pop bottles.

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