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Talking Trash : A Look at How L.A. and Other Cities Are Trying to Comply With a State Law That Says They Must Cut Solid Waste in Half by 2000


Ten years ago, New York state came up with a seemingly ingenious solution to its twin problems of apparently unlimited garbage and limited landfill space. The state packed 3,000 tons of garbage onto a barge, which set sail in search of a dump site.

As the barge headed south, though, none of the six states or three countries it passed would allow it to dump its refuse, forcing the headline-making "garbage barge" to return to Long Island for more conventional disposal of the trash.

Southland disposal experts are scrambling to avoid a similar scenario here. That scramble has been made all the more pressing by provisions of AB 939. That state law, passed in 1989, mandated that all California cities and counties cut garbage going to landfills in half by 2000.

With only six months left to implement final plans, meeting the state-mandated goal remains, for some Southland cities, more theoretical than actual.

But the city of Los Angeles is already close to meeting that 50% goal, said Drew Sones, director of the city's Bureau of Sanitation.

Even so, Sones said Los Angeles and other cities face dwindling landfill capacity in the county by the turn of the century.

The problem: Los Angeles County has just five major dump sites, each of which has limited expansion possibilities. And expanding the San Fernando Valley's Sunshine Canyon landfill took a dozen years just to overcome local opposition, said Steve Maguin, head of solid waste management for the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, a consortium of sanitation agencies.

In addition, communities where new sites have been proposed have effectively scuttled them. The result, said Eugene Grigsby, professor of urbanology and director of UCLA's Advanced Planning Institute, is that "we've got no place to put the garbage."

With the Southland rapidly running out of space for the 128,000 tons--or 43 barges worth--of waste it generates each day in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura, Imperial and Riverside counties, radical solutions are being discussed. One proposal is to commission trains to haul the garbage out to the Southern California desert, as well as to Arizona and Utah.

Seattle and Marin County have begun similar long-distance rail hauling, Maguin said. Preliminary design plans are going forward for a trash-hauling rail facility at Puente Hills, the largest disposal site in the county.

But rail hauling may damage the deserts and triple disposal fees from their current average of $19 a ton, Maguin said, providing "a significant revenue enhancer for the rail industry" when it comes on line in about a decade. "The farther out we go, the more money we have to spend," Maguin said.

Los Angeles County cities may increase their trash exports to surrounding counties. After the Orange County bankruptcy, when that county sought additional revenues, the city of Los Angeles began paying Orange County to take roughly 10% of the city's trash, Maguin said. Sites in Ventura and Riverside counties, which have taken relatively small amounts of trash, are also being considered for exports--amid growing local opposition.

Confronted with this scenario, UCLA recently helped convene the first Southland cities conference to discuss the issue. Was the mandated 50% reduction reasonable, the conferees asked. And how can it be reached?

The jury is still out on the goal's reasonableness, Grigsby said. If it were to be achieved, however, it would largely be brought about by strengthening government-mandated recycling efforts.

The problem, Grigsby said, is that "consumers often don't want to buy [recycled goods]. There are also cheaper ways to make those goods" using new materials.

Thus, each city would have to require that a stated percentage of products made there be from recycled materials. "A lot of cities are trying to put such a requirement on their books," he said.

Once such a process began, more recycled goods would be made at a lower cost, spurring additional cost-cutting research and development. Recycling would become an established part of the economy, and the cycle would feed on itself, he said.

In addition, Maguin said, more waste could be recycled into energy production programs, which transform solid waste into electricity. Already, Maguin said, two such facilities are in operation, one in the city of Commerce, the other in Long Beach. Together, they recycle 4% of the county's waste.

That percentage, he said, could increase to 50% or more. "But we had a tremendous outcry when we started the program in the early '80s that we would be spewing toxins and polluting the environment," he said. Just how to balance those fears, along with concerns about other alternatives, needs to be reexamined because the landfill situation has reached such a crucial stage, he said.

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