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Business trash has downtown boxed in

Merchants' discarded cardboard and plastic are a growing problem.

May 08, 2008|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

Fourteen tons. That's roughly how much illegal litter is cleared each day off the streets of downtown Los Angeles' industrial and warehouse districts.

Fourteen tons, every day, seven days a week. Thousands of coat hangers. Banks of flattened cardboard boxes. Sheets of billowy cellophane. Left not by pedestrians or the homeless, but by shopkeepers and tradespeople.

It's not really their fault. Some business owners neatly bag and stack their trash under the mistaken impression someone will remove it. Others are unable to jam even one trash bin into their cramped quarters in the stalls and building alcoves that mark the districts' work spaces.

Now, the business improvement districts stuck with cleaning the mess are fighting back. Stu Clark, of Brea-based D. Edwards Inc., is working with the Toy District on ideas including providing merchants with low-cost bags, instead of bins, and arranging for a single trash bin contractor to serve large groups of small-business owners.

In the Fashion District, administrators have placed their hopes on Environmental Technologies LLC, which is trying to harness the value in the Fashion District's litter by selling it as a raw material. The option grows more attractive as the price of used plastic and cardboard climbs. "It's a project that's never been done before," said Gary Sanchez, owner of Environmental Technologies.

Prices of recyclable materials are subject to rapid shifts and vary depending on many factors. But cardboard has sold in the U.S. for as much as $100 a ton recently, and plastic, at the high end, for about 20 cents a pound. The cardboard is turned into pulp for paper products, and the plastic is used for bags and shrink wrap, Sanchez said.

The company has picked up about 15 tons of recyclable waste in the first two weeks of the program, he said. Kent Smith, executive director of the Fashion District's business improvement agency, praised the early effort, saying that "the tonnage is going up" with each pickup.

Cooperation is voluntary. Environmental Technologies asks for no compensation beyond the value of the recyclables it collects and the privilege of putting the improvement district's logo on its trucks.

The agencies say their efforts will serve the dual purposes of recycling more waste and cleaning up the streets of downtown Los Angeles, not to mention restoring some measure of lawfulness since technically the businesses are not supposed to be dumping their garbage.

However, potentially delicate social and political issues are tied up in the area's trash, said Estela Lopez, head of the Central City East Assn. Some business owners, such as Ramoyd Espinoza, a Toy District ice cream and sundry shop owner, are desperate for a cleanup. So much trash was piled in the alley next to his business, Espinoza said, that he had trouble getting approval from health inspectors to sell food.

But business owners with other cultural values are less concerned. It's a tricky issue for districts with diverse populations, Smith said.

Also complicating the litter issue are the many ways that people survive on garbage downtown. Not only do the homeless comb the streets for trash, but scores of cardboard scavengers ensure that many tons of the valuable material are recycled daily, though they sometimes fight over territory. Some of these collectors, pushing carts or driving pickup trucks, have regular routes.

Already, in the first stages of the Environmental Technologies program, the Fashion District's agency has received "vehement" complaints from cardboard scavengers who see the new recycling trucks as threatening their livelihoods, Smith said. The scavengers are reportedly lobbying hard to persuade business owners to bypass the official pickup service.

Farther north, the Toy District litter troubleshooters are moving more cautiously. Rather than jumping on the scavenger issue, the Toy District is first trying to fix the litter-bin problem.

Clark's firm, working under an $85,000 city Sanitation Department contract, expects to make recommendations in the next few months.

Lopez, the Central City East official, said the trash situation is a "crisis" and her agency is eager to experiment with new ideas.

Litter has occupied far more of her energies than she intended, she said. "I never did think I would be so well versed in trash."

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jill.leovy@latimes.com

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