April 1, 2004

5 Min Read
Hazwaste Homebase

Michael Fickes Business Editor Cockeysville, Md.

COLLECTING HAZWASTE in Los Angeles has gotten safer and cheaper, thanks to new hazardous waste centers. Last year, the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation began cutting the cost for collecting and disposing of household hazardous wastes by phasing out a mobile collection system and replacing it with permanent drop-off sites called SAFE Collection Centers.

To date, the sanitation bureau has opened five SAFE (solvents, automotive, flammables and electronics) Centers. When completely rolled out, a network of nine sites will double the bureau's capacity for dealing with household hazardous wastes, while sticking to a $3 million annual budget.

The bureau began collecting household hazardous wastes in 1988 with a mobile collection trailer. Informed by mail and radio advertising, residents would load household hazardous wastes into their cars and ferry them to the trailer where sanitation employees accepted the items and saw to their disposal.

By 2002, the city was conducting 25 mobile pickups per year, but costs were growing prohibitive. On average, collecting and disposing of materials ferried by car to the mobile collection sites cost the bureau approximately $100 per car. With an annual budget of about $3 million, the program could afford to collect materials from no more than 30,000 cars per year.

An efficiency initiative managed to bring the cost per car down to $85 toward the end of 2002. Yet, the program would have overrun its budget at 40,000 cars, a number that represented only about 10 percent of the city's 400,000 households.

Fernando Gonzalez, who manages household hazardous waste disposal and recycling for the sanitation department, decided the mobile program would soon begin to fall behind the demand for service. “Local and national trends suggested that within a few years, our mobile collection system would reach its operating capacity,” he says. “So we had to figure out a way to increase the budget or bring down the cost per car.”

Given the tight city budget, Gonzalez set out to find a more efficient way to deal with the waste. He reviewed mobile and permanent site programs run by other jurisdictions and noticed that permanent drop-off sites offered an advantage over mobile units, in that they could store materials for up to 90 days. Mobile units must dispose of materials as soon as trailers are full.

The different storage capabilities proved critical. By storing materials, Gonzalez reasoned, permanent sites could amass enough recyclables to attract recycling contractors. Recycling fees are dramatically lower than the tipping fees paid by the mobile units at landfills permitted to accept household hazardous wastes. “The thing that kills you in mobile [collection] is the transfer to disposal and recycling in the same day,” Gonzalez says.

Fixed facilities would enable sanitation employees to sort materials more completely, store the materials for a week or so while they accumulated, and then prepare the materials for the lowest cost recycling alternative. For example, paint cans with a little paint left in the bottom make up 70 percent of the household hazardous wastes collected in Los Angeles.

The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) requires Los Angeles to place paint cans in special lab-packs for disposal. When cleaning out mobile collection trailers, sanitation workers simply tossed paint cans into lab-pack boxes that hold 200 cans. Regardless of weight, contractors in Los Angeles charge $750 to dispose of a single box.

If workers were to pour the leftover paint from 600 pails — three lab-packs worth — into a USDOT-certified bulk drum, however, a contractor would charge just $110 to haul away the paint, compared to $2,150 for three lab-packs.

That process leaves the paint cans for disposal. “We're working on getting can-smashers,” Gonzalez adds. “We're hoping to recycle the metal in the cans. So far, this has been difficult because of paint residue, but we're working on it.”

Permanent facilities open up other recycling possibilities as well. “You can accumulate household batteries and find a recycling contractor to take them,” Gonzalez explains. “With just a few batteries, you have no choice except to take them to a special landfill. The same is true for other items, such as thermometers. Now, we can collect those and send the mercury to a recycling facility.”

Gonzalez's theories have been proven in practice. So far, recycling through the five SAFE Centers has cut the cost per car to $42. “At $42 per car, our operating capacity is 80,000 cars per year or about 20 percent of our households,” he says. “That's a much better level for a city the size of Los Angeles.”

To build a network of nine SAFE Centers, however, the city would have to gather $4 million to $ 5 million from various sources. So Gonzalez first squeezed the bureau for construction funds by arguing that publicity about household hazardous wastes would eventually drive more people to the existing mobile unit system.

If in five years 80,000 cars came to the trailers with hazardous household wastes, the Bureau would have no option but to pay $85 per car for the extra 40,000 cars. That would double the current annual operating budget. So Gonzalez suggested paying a one-time capital fee to accommodate future increases in demand with no increase in the operating budget.

The bureau agreed with Gonzalez's plan and found some funds to begin the construction of the fixed SAFE Centers. “Next, we were able to get an opportunity grant from the California Waste Management Board,” Gonzalez says. “They are also allowing us to use some money from other recycling funds.”

A third source of capital to fund the SAFE Centers came from other city agencies, such as wastewater treatment plants and stormwater facilities, that would benefit from the proper recycling of hazardous household materials. Gonzalez asked for and received a couple of years' worth of the money the SAFE Center plan would save those agencies. “We are getting our capital money from these sources and our operating money through increased efficiency,” Gonzalez says.

Meanwhile, residents have taken to the SAFE Centers. During 2003, nearly 20,000 residents dropped off about 2 million pounds of household hazardous wastes at SAFE Centers.

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