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As the economy slumps, so does trash

Landfills receive less because people are buying less. Sometimes that's good news, but not always.

January 25, 2009|Jennifer Oldham

There's an upside to the economy being down in the dumps: Less trash.

Consumers are eating fewer meals away from home, reducing food waste -- the No. 1 space hog at landfills. Contractors are building fewer homes and tossing aside less drywall, lumber and other heavy debris. Pack rats who can't afford to move are postponing cleaning out their closets, landfill operators say.

For a commentary on California's economic health, visit its landfills, where disposal rates are hitting record lows.

Over the last six months, operators at Puente Hills Landfill, among the nation's largest, have noted a 30% decrease in tonnage from neighboring municipalities. The dump used to close at noon because it would reach its daily tonnage limit; now it stays open all day without hitting that mark.

San Francisco is disposing of less in landfills than it has in 30 years. In San Diego, disposal rates at the Miramar Landfill are on track to bring in the lowest total in 15 years.

"There always have been three givens in life: death, taxes and garbage," said Evan Edgar, a civil engineer and a regulatory advocate for the California Refuse Recycling Council. "Since the 1970s, that's been a mantra in our industry. But what this recession has shown is that we will have death and taxes, but garbage is no longer recession-proof."

Southern Californians confirm that concerns about layoffs and unstable gasoline prices are prompting them to buy little except necessities. And it shows in the makeup of their trash.

"I spend less," said Sara Serrano, 46, an employee at Costco in Los Feliz. She said that the warehouse store now rarely sees the long lines that until last spring had been common during her 13 years there. "My trash can -- the recycle one -- I don't bring it out anymore. My other one only has one or two bags in it a week, where before it was three or more."

Glendale retiree Helga Santiago, 63, said she's taken to finding second uses for oversized packaging such as cereal boxes and for disposable glasses and plates before tossing them in the recycling bin. The former home-care aide to the elderly said she never strays from her list at the grocery store, sticking to staples such as oranges and rice.

The reduction in trash has been a blessing for many municipalities statewide, because they had begun seeing steep declines in revenue from their recycling programs when commodity prices tanked last fall. Now, they are able to offset some of those losses by paying less in landfill fees called tipping fees.

However, the trend has had the opposite effect in San Diego, where the Miramar Landfill is owned by the city. Officials there are grappling with whether to cut services or raise fees to make up in part for tipping fee losses.

Haulers ferried 66,000 tons of trash to the landfill in December, a 12% decline from the same period a year ago. Construction and demolition waste plunged 80%, from 36,000 tons in December 2007 to 7,000 tons last month.

Frugal consumer buying habits like those practiced by Serrano and Santiago are reflected in the city of Los Angeles' waste stream.

The city collected 6% less trash in the last three months, saving the Bureau of Sanitation $405,728 in tipping fees compared to what it paid for a similar period in 2007. This savings more than made up for a $254,000 drop in recycling revenue, said Enrique Zaldivar, the bureau's director.

And that raises another consequence of the downturn: its effect on recycling. The slumping economy has driven down commodity prices for plastic, glass and especially paper in ways that have discouraged conservation advocates and dented city programs that depend on revenue from recycling.

Los Angeles is less vulnerable to unpredictable swings in commodity prices -- which for some materials, such as cardboard, fell by as much as 90% in recent weeks -- because its contractor has agreed to pay, in most cases, a minimum of $25 per ton of recyclables, Zaldivar said.

Still, he worries that volatility in the market could cause some recycling companies to go under.

In San Diego, the city expects that recycling revenues for the fiscal year starting July 1 will be half what they were two years ago, when it collected $6.2 million from selling used glass, plastic and cardboard. Declines in recycling revenues and tipping fees will require some tough choices for the city during this spring's budget negotiations, especially given that a 1919 law prohibits the city from assessing a trash fee on single-family homes, said Stephen Grealy, waste reduction program manager.

"We're pretty close to the bone," he said. "We have been in a situation of not having a lot of funds for many years."

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