BioCycle Magazine

California Strives to Reach 50 Percent

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

IN 1989, California passed historic legislation that sought to radically decrease the amount of materials deposited in the state’s landfills. Authored by State Senator Byron Sher, Assembly Bill 939 mandated that municipalities and counties divert 25 percent of their waste from landfilling by 1995, and 50 percent by the end of 2000. Coupled with significant amounts of financial support, the legislation has pushed California toward tremendous levels of progress in recycling over the past decade, including a statewide diversion rate of 33 percent in 1998.

“I see a lot of success here,” says Dan Eaton, chairman of the California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB), the state agency responsible for landfill permitting, recycling promotion and compliance with AB 939. “We are recycling, reusing and reducing more than we ever have. The first goal of the legislation was to alleviate the landfill capacity crisis, which has been accomplished.”

Gary Liss, a recycling consultant and former executive director of the California Resource Recovery Association, agrees. “The thrust of the law is to hold local governments accountable for progress in recycling, and the vast majority of them have embraced the goals, accepted responsibility for them, and moved forward to implement programs. I’d say the progress is remarkable,” says Liss, who served on the Senate task force that recommended the framework which would become AB 939. “When we set out in 1987-1988 to think about goals for the state, people considered 25 percent diversion very ambitious. We exceeded that goal and people are still working to meet 50 percent. I view AB 939 as an unmitigated success.”

Looking at the letter of the law, it is clear that many California cities and counties will not meet the 50 percent mark by the deadline. “We’ll probably see 25 to 30 percent of jurisdictions reaching the 50 percent plus mark this year,” says Eaton. “Like a bell curve, a large percentage will be in the upper 30s to 49 percent.” Of 451 jurisdictions that reported to the state, only 104 had met the 50 percent goal at the end of 1997, according to an Associated Press review. A preliminary look at the reports filed for 1998 indicates that the total has not grown significantly.

Rick Best, president of GrassRoots Recycling Network and a member of Californians Against Waste, believes the focus should be on the last decade of progress and pushing ahead. “The fact that not all jurisdictions comply doesn’t mean the law is a failure,” he says. “We are pleased with the progress made by local governments and see it as a major success resulting from the recycling law.”

The prosperity of the 1990s and accompanying increase in consumption have made it more difficult for jurisdictions trying to increase recycling rates. “Economic activity over the past decade has been tremendous, which has played a role in the amount of waste that’s generated,” says Eaton. “If the economy had been consistent, we would see many more jurisdictions reaching 50 percent.”

Eaton and Best agree that geography factors into who meets the 50 percent goal or comes relatively close. “I think the jurisdictions in urban areas tend to be more in compliance, whereas that’s less so in rural and suburban areas,” says Best. While that may be a broad generalization, larger jurisdictions can devote more money to recycling, achieve economies of scale in collection routes and marketing, and host markets for materials within their borders.

Recycling rates also vary by differences in standards for what qualifies as diversion. For example, a municipality might inflate its rate by using contaminated soil or excessive amounts of yard trimmings as alternative daily landfill cover.

These factors aside, Eaton and Best believe that with enough commitment, any city or county can reach 50 percent diversion. The three factors behind the failure of some jurisdictions to make significant headway toward that mark are lack of resources, education and leadership, says Eaton. CIWMB has dedicated numerous grants and outreach programs to address the first two issues.


To have any shot at 50 percent diversion, an obvious program that many municipalities must implement is curbside recycling collection, which is available to at least 55 percent of California households. But overall, the most important area to be addressed may be buying and using products with recycled content. “For the most part, we’re seeing local governments doing a good job of implementing local programs and building the recycling infrastructure,” says Best. “It’s really the market side that’s lacking. If there were better markets, local governments would be happy to add materials to their collections. They have to be able to sell at a price where they’re not losing a lot of money.”

Adds Eaton: “First and foremost, cities and the state have a mutual obligation to do more in terms of incorporating green building and green procurement concepts in their everyday activities...If you have a prison population of several hundred thousand and each one uses one roll of toilet paper per week with recycled content, then you’re creating market demand through the ‘spec’ process. That’s where jurisdictions in cities, counties and the state can increase their efforts. Think about the economic buying power of state and local governments in California, the seventh largest economy in the world.”


Important area that must be targeted more aggressively is organics recycling and composting. “We look at organics in our Strategic Plan as the largest segment of the waste stream,” says Eaton. “We have to renew our efforts and commitment to make composting and organics problem solving a higher priority.” Lack of visibility for organics as part of the waste stream and fear of the unknown have blocked progress, he adds. “Also, local planning in government could be better, particularly in siting. In southern California, land values are so great and transportation to and from markets can be exorbitant, and with how the system works, it’s hard to site facilities.”
One of CIWMB’s goals in terms of organics is to bring together the urban, agricultural and public sectors to start addressing biosolids recycling. “We’re generating a tremendous amount of biosolids and have to find a beneficial use for them while still providing protection and alleviating fears,” says Eaton. “In some parts of the state, the agricultural community has embraced biosolids application, while others tell a supplier that ‘if you use biosolids, your contract is automatically terminated.’ That’s not a positive economic situation. What I would like as a board member and chair is to be proactive on an emerging problem. If we had been proactive on landfill capacity in the early 1980s instead of the mid to late ‘80s, we would have been able to avert problems.”


The state has other tools it could use to assist jurisdictions in starting and expanding programs. For example, the $1.34/ton landfill tipping surcharge should be increased to raise more funds for diversion programs, says Best, He notes that Alameda County uses a $6/ton surcharge to fund some of the best initiatives in the state. “I don’t think the current level is sufficient in terms of the need for programs,” he explains. “...For example, there are a few jurisdictions that have funded waste audits of businesses. Those are key for seeing what opportunities exist not just for recycling, but in decreasing use of materials. They have been tremendously effective, but many jurisdictions don’t have the resources to do them. There’s certainly a role for the state to provide such services for local governments.”

The state legislature also needs to make producers more responsible for the recovery and recycling of their materials, according to Best. “We’re seeing more manufacturers switching from materials like aluminum and glass, which have higher recycling rates and recycled content, to plastic,” he says. “We really need to get plastics manufacturers to take responsibility for supporting the recycling infrastructure.”

Another area impacting diversion is landfill permitting. Recycling and environmental advocates are concerned about the Eagle Mountain Landfill, a recently approved $115 million project about 75 miles east of Palm Springs that will be able to accommodate up to 20,000 tons/year of trash for 50 years. (See “Approval Given To Start Nation’s Largest Landfill,” January, 2000.) “When you make such a large amount of landfill capacity available at a comparable price to others in the state, that can have a negative impact on jurisdictions’ efforts to implement diversion programs,” says Best. “There ought to be a role by the state in regulating landfill capacity so we don’t have a surplus.” According to John Frith, CIWMB’s public affairs manager, while the board ensures that the state has adequate landfill capacity for nonrecycled materials, authority over siting, size, etc. is in the hands of local jurisdictions. The board’s role in new landfills is limited to health, safety and environmental issues.


Even as it promotes various avenues for reaching 50 percent diversion, in terms of its data tracking, CIWMB is still catching up on the waste management reports filed by jurisdictions for 1998. In addition, some places are behind in submitting their figures. According to the legislation, enforcement of AB 939 begins in 2001, when cities and counties that fail to meet the mandate can start being fined up to $10,000/day. But since CIWMB is basing compliance on the year 2000 reports, which are not due until August, 2001, any fines would not be levied until late 2001 at the very earliest, and quite possibly much later.

If past experience is any indication, there ultimately may not be any fines. “In realistic terms, the board would rather work with communities to get into compliance instead of having them pay fines,” says Liss. Compliance orders include recommendations on what programs should be added to boost recycling. “The board looks at what similar jurisdictions with the same waste generation components have done,” says Frith. “We have ten years of experience in seeing which programs are effective as compared to those that look good on paper, but the results don’t materialize.”

One example of a diversion initiative resulting from a compliance order is a C&D recycling program Liss developed for the city of Hawthorne. Under its contract, a hauler with an exclusive city franchise for C&D must take at least 90 percent of the material to facilities for recycling. “In addition, all of the C&D activities will have to be documented by the franchised hauler and other independent contractors — how much material they’re taking and recycling — to provide a recording system that the city can track,” explains Liss.

A Senate bill passed in 1997 offers an extension to jurisdictions falling short of the AB 939 standards that have made a “good faith effort” to comply. According to Frith, there were 63 California jurisdictions (14 percent) that failed to achieve 25 percent diversion by 1995 and did not receive “good faith” clearance. They were required to develop a diversion plan in conjunction with CIWMB. (In some cases, Frith said, the shortfall stemmed from difficulties in developing an accurate base analysis and correctly calculating waste and recycling figures.) None of the 63 jurisdictions have been fined.

CIWMB staff is scheduled to have parameters in place by the end of the summer for determining which municipalities and counties are eligible for extensions to the December 31, 2000 deadline. An obvious indicator, notes Eaton, is whether programs with the potential to divert significant amounts of waste have been developed. “If you’re a bedroom community and haven’t implemented grasscycling and composting, that’s not a good faith effort,” he says. “Now if you haven’t been able to expand in order to keep up with demand, that’s a factor to be considered...A number of people are advocating a menu approach to the law: If you have five or six quality programs, then you’ve made a good faith effort. I think that’s a positive approach. If you’re in the high desert where there’s no water or grass growing, you can’t accomplish anything with grasscycling. But even though you can’t do that, you can use green procurement to help market development.”

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