Recycling Rocks in L.A.

May 1, 2000

9 Min Read
Recycling Rocks in L.A.

Daniel Oliver Hackney

Home to Hollywood, the Lakers, the Dodgers, beautiful beaches and great weather, Los Angeles (L.A.) takes pride in another title - recycling world champions. At approximately 450 square miles, L.A. is the largest residential solid resources collection area in the United States. The city diverted 2.8 million tons of solid waste in 1998, according to Citywide Recycling Division Manager Lupe Vela.

"That is attributable to the fact that we have a perspective on recycling that incorporates both residential and commercial, and offers unique approaches for both," Vela says. Recycling success also is due to the city's conversion to 95-gallon automated containers and a single-stream recycling method. These practices increased recycling tonnage by 150 percent, according to John de la Rosa, solid resources collection district manager.

"Even in our wildest dreams, we never expected that dramatic an increase," he says

Currently, Los Angeles diverts 48 percent of its residential waste. The recyclables collection program costs $1.72 per household; $3.24 for yard trimmings; and $5.75 for refuse, based on December 1999 to January 2000 figures. (Figures vary monthly.) The program has fared so well that in 1999, the city's "Recycle the Blue Way" Automated Recycling program won Mayor Richard J. Riordan's Productivity Commission Award for having the most innovative and cost-effective city program. With citywide solid waste diversion in 2000 on track to exceed the 50 percent mandate of California State Assembly Bill 939, the mayor also has set a citywide recycling goal of 70 percent by 2020.

L.A.'s Recycling Roots Los Angeles was not always so recycling-minded. In 1957, mayoral candidate Sam Yorty ran on a platform to exchange its system of sorting food waste and tin cans for manual curbside collection of foodwaste, and burning the rest in backyard incinerators. When he won, and for the next 23 years, Los Angeles relied on six city-owned and operated landfills to dispose of all solid waste.

However when California Assembly Bill 939 was ratified mandating a 25 percent diversion of all solid waste by 1995 and 50 percent by 2000, Los Angeles converted to an automated refuse and yard trimmings collection system, and began manual curbside collection of two-stream recyclables. Following this focus in 1990 to recycle and divert waste, Los Angeles-owned landfills began to close. The last city-owned landfill closed in summer 1996.

In spring 1996, the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation began a pilot recycling program to determine whether increasing container capacity from a 16-gallon bin to a 95-gallon container and improving customer convenience would improve diversion. The immediate results spurred the city to distribute 95-gallon blue containers to 720,000 households between October 1996 and December 1998 at a cost of $30 million. The city also offered customers with terrain or storage issues the option of a 60-gallon container. Elderly or disabled residents could use a 30-gallon container.

Los Angeles residents took well to the new single-stream recycling program. Along with positive responses at community group presentations, an early survey revealed a customer approval rating of 92 percent. Additionally, the collection day set-out rate soared from 30 percent with the 16-gallon yellow bins to more than 80 percent with the 95-gallon blue containers. Participation by tonnage increased 150 percent.

Currently, Los Angeles collects 5,200 tons per day. Based on this, the city estimates that through diversion, it could save $6 million per year in avoided landfill tip fees, extended landfill capacity and from $1.5 in recyclables revenue.

Automation Cuts Costs An automated collection system saves money inherently, especially considering Los Angeles' size. For example, after the city converted to automated collection, it reduced its staff and equipment 25 percent. Additionally, overtime and paperwork was reduced because the trucks' on-board reporting system enables supervisors, drivers and mechanics to better monitor on-route performance and all mechanical vehicle functions. Furthermore, because the city was collecting more with fewer people and expanding recycling routes from 400 homes per route to nearly 800 homes per route, Los Angeles reduced its fleet by 130 trucks at $160,000 per truck.

Collection drivers now can collect at a minimum rate of 145 containers per hour with automated trucks. And with less time spent jumping in and out of trucks to lift heavy containers, Los Angeles has fewer worker compensation claims.

Another benefit from converting to 95-gallon containers and single-stream recycling is reduced scavenging. According to De la Rosa, many city neighborhoods report zero scavenging. This is because the larger container increases the time scavengers need to pull out specific commodities, he says.

"Our initial objectives in going automated were to increase public participation, improve collection efficiencies, reduce driver injuries and deter scavenging," says Maribel Marin, board of public works commissioner and liaison to the Bureau of Sanitation. "We have far exceeded our goals in all four categories."

With participation at an all-time high, Los Angeles now is concentrating on sustaining its participation level and educating the city's 3.7 million customers about the do's and the don'ts of recycling.

Participation Begets Contamination Los Angeles converted to single-stream recycling because of its simplicity. To start the program, blue containers were distributed with a one-page flyer instructing residents on the items that could and couldn't be placed in the new blue container. Additionally, a sticker on the lid of each container summarized the instructions. Participation was excellent throughout the six-month pilot and the first year of the citywide collection. Contamination was less than 10 percent, which was specified in Los Angeles' contracts with the materials recovery facilities (MRFs), De la Rosa says.

But as time passed, the level of contamination increased, with some districts now experiencing contamination rates in excess of 20 percent. In response, Los Angeles is conducting comprehensive waste characterization studies with funding provided by the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB), Sacramento, to determine the contamination source and identify solutions.

To date, the city has hosted two forums on contamination. Program manager Antoine Raphael is confident L.A. can comply with the contamination limit, saying: "We invited our largest neighbors to the north and south, San Francisco and San Diego, our six MRF operators, and other industry leaders to discuss the perplexing issue and work collaboratively to come up with workable solutions. With our diverse population, we hope what we learn here in L.A. about contamination in a large-scale single stream recycling program can benefit other municipalities nationwide should they choose to go single-stream collection."

Contamination seems to be innocent or malicious. "Innocent" contamination results because residents "over-recycle" when in doubt about whether an item is recyclable. When customers are unsure about the item, they err on the side of throwing it into the blue recycling container. Consequently, L.A. is developing a citywide educational campaign to correct the misinformed contamination trend.

The campaign will include: 1. A Customer Service Guide to all the city's solid resources programs and how to correctly use them mailed to all 720,000 residences;

2. Colorful, catchy truck signs with brief "how to" and "did you know" messages placed on all 500 vehicles in the city's fleet;

3. Updated school outreach materials that will educate 80,000 school children annually on how to recycle;

4. Updated education materials distributed at homeowner association and civic group presentations;

5. Television, radio and print advertisements touting the benefits of recycling and the detriments of contamination; and

6. Random task force checks of neighborhood containers and truck load audits at MRFs to track contamination and accumulate data to help the city determine what factors affect contamination levels (e.g. language barriers, extra-capacity fees, etc.).

Malicious contamination, however, is not so easily solved. The handful of residents who "maliciously" contaminate the recycling stream know that items, such as a bag of trash or grass clippings, are not accepted by the city's recycling program but throw them in the recycling bin anyway. The problem is, in a city the size of L.A., a "handful" easily can mean 10,000 residents and a significant negative impact on the quality of the recycling stream, according to Raphael.

The city's early research found that some residents were throwing excess refuse into the largest capacity container they had - the 95-gallon recycling bin - to avoid paying an extra-capacity fee. Los Angeles charges $10 per month for an extra 60-gallon refuse container and $5 per month for an extra 60-gallon yard trimmings container. Some customers also were throwing bulky items (e.g. car engines, microwaves, carpet, curtain rods, oscillating fans, etc.) that did not fit into the 60-gallon container into the 95-gallon recycling container.

In addition to the education campaign, the city is considering several enforcement strategies. However, because patrolling 450 square miles can be costly and not necessarily effective, the city also is hopeful that resident re-education will reduce malicious contamination by informing contaminators what the economic (e.g. loss of MRF revenue equals wasted tax dollars) and environmental detriments (e.g. increased landfill materials) are to the city's recycling program.

Recycling Still King Despite the current issue of contamination, Los Angeles still is proud of its recycling accomplishments. The city plans to continue improving its recycling efforts especially considering Mayor Riordan's 70 percent diversion goal. Los Angeles adopted an ordinance that requires the 42 city departments to buy recycled whenever possible, including 100 percent of its paper purchases.

Los Angeles also has just proposed a new ordinance encouraging the Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta, and other manufacturers to use more recycled plastic in their products. Los Angeles hopes that by leading by example, the public and private sectors will buy more recycled products to help create increased demand for recyclables worldwide.

Daniel Hackney is the customer relations manager for the city of Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation and serves as customer service director, principal outreach coordinator, media spokesman and public speaker for the L.A. Solid Resources Program.

Fleet Size and No. of Routes: 625 collection vehicles, including: * 510 fully automated collection trucks (232 for refuse; 144 for yard trimmings; and 134 for recyclables). Mostly Amrep bodies with Peterbilt or Volvo chassis;

* 64 semi-automated trucks with McNeilus or Heil bodies with Peterbilt chassis for hard-to-collect areas (e.g. steep terrain, narrow alleys, etc.);

* 40 trucks for bulky items; and

* 11 trucks for dead animal collection.

Collection Division Personnel: 890

Container Set-Out: Standard set-out per home is one blue 95-gallon automated container (Otto and Rehrig Pacific) for single-stream recyclables; one green 60-gallon automated container (Otto, Rehrig Pacific, Plastic Omnium Zarn and Plastopan) for yard trimmings; and one black 60-gallon automated container (Otto, Rehrig Pacific, Zarn and Plastopan) for refuse.

Households Serviced: 510,000 single-family homes and 210,000 multi-unit dwellings with automated curbside collection of refuse, recyclables and yard trimmings. Also free bulky item and dead animal collection on request.

Tipping Fees: $20 per ton

Recyclables Revenue: $1.25 million annually

Avoided Landfill Tip Fees Due To Recycling: $5.25 million annually

Sanitation Hotline Calls: 42,000-50,000 per month.

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