Monday, July 10, 2006| In this large warehouse, green and brown glass bottles are bouncing through a sorting system with a thunderous crash. Above, workers standing atop blue crates separate Pennzoil bottles from milk jugs. In a far corner, a backhoe is sorting through 20-foot stacks of cardboard.

But for all the aluminum and glass and paper here at the Miramar facility that sorts San Diego’s recyclables, something is missing: A few tons’ worth.

Some West Coast cities are known for their pioneering recycling policies, making recycling bins universally available and sometimes fining residents who fail to use them. But San Diego doesn’t offer recycling pickup to more than 100,000 units in apartment complexes, condos and multi-family dwellings. Offices also aren’t included.

So if your office or apartment complex doesn’t hire a private hauler to recycle, your cans, bottles and paper wind up at the dump.

It’s a fact that frustrates some apartment dwellers, who sometimes sneak their recyclables into nearby homeowners’ blue recycling containers. The city has logged numerous complaints from apartment residents who want recycling. Though the city offers drop-off points, many don’t use them.

As a result, the city estimates residents without curbside recycling discard nearly 100,000 tons of bottles, aluminum cans and paper each year. More than half the waste tossed into the city’s landfill at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar is recyclable.

That could change this fall. City officials are in the process of drafting an ordinance that aims to provide recycling to homes and businesses that lack it. Right now, the city of San Diego offers curbside recycling to single-family homes and a handful of multi-family dwellings. Though it is still under development, the ordinance is expected to require apartment managers, condo associations and office buildings to provide tenants with recycling and may propose fines for those that don’t.

“Our sense is that the only way the city of San Diego is going to step up to the plate is to go with the mandatory recycling ordinance,” said Elmer Heap, director of the city’s environmental services department. “We haven’t scratched the surface with what we can accomplish.”

It is a proposal that is guaranteed to see some support from council members. But it isn’t guaranteed to sail through. Such a plan wouldn’t be free. Building owners would be responsible for the costs of providing recycling pickup, city officials say. And groups who represent those owners – such as the San Diego Apartment Association – say they will oppose it.

“We want to see some workable solutions before they get that far,” said Alan Pentico, the association’s spokesman. “We are not anxious to see a mandatory ordinance.”

City officials see it as a necessary next step in a struggle to rein in the 2 million tons of waste collected in San Diego each year. When he talks about the ordinance, Kip Sturdevan, deputy director of the city’s waste reduction and enforcement division, recalls stories of Depression-era spending. You bought what you needed.

“It took us 30 or 40 years to come to this conspicuous consumption,” Sturdevan said. “Trying to change that back – it goes counter to a lot of things that you read about and a lot of things that our culture and our market-based economy wants people to do: To generate more stuff.”

The California Assembly took steps in 1989 to fight that growing waste stream, passing a bill that requires cities and counties to divert at least 50 percent of their trash from landfills through recycling, composting and reuse programs. San Diego reached that goal last year with a 52-percent rate. But city officials say they need a larger cushion.

Miramar, the only city-owned dump, is expected to reach capacity between 2011 and 2013, and city officials are hoping to forestall the inevitable. Once Miramar closes, the city will be forced to rely on two privately owned landfills, which could boost trash collection costs.

A mandatory recycling program would boost the city’s diversion rate about 3 percent, Sturdevan said. A planned city facility to keep construction and demolition debris out of the landfill – asphalt and concrete can be recycled – would boost it another 5 percent to 6 percent.

“The question is: Should people who decide to throw away valuable resources be allowed to do that with impunity?” said Darryl Young, an environmentalist and former director of the California Department of Conservation. “… The fact that San Diego has failed to fully implement curbside recycling puts them behind the curve. But the fact that they’re looking at where they are on the curve is a good sign.”

Some cities have become recycling pioneers without resorting to mandatory programs. San Francisco aims to produce zero waste by 2020, and currently diverts 67 percent of its waste stream from landfills – one of the state’s highest rates. Portland, considered a pioneer in recycling, encourages residents to recycle by allowing them to choose the size of their trashcan. The motivation: If you recycle more, you pay less. The larger your trashcan, the more you pay in monthly fees.

But both cities charge residents for trash and recycling pickup. San Diego is prohibited from charging those fees under a law known as the People’s Ordinance of 1919. It provides for free trash pickup at single-family homes, which cost the city $54 million last year.

Recycling programs run a broad spectrum nationwide. Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. each have similar policies to San Diego’s. Los Angeles has considered a mandatory recycling policy for multi-family units, but has slowly been moving toward a city-provided service paid for by garbage-collection fees.

Seattle has one of the country’s strictest approaches to recycling. The city fines businesses whose garbage is repeatedly filled with more than 10 percent recyclable material. Homeowners aren’t fined. The city simply stops picking up their trash, a Seattle Public Utilities spokesman said.

Avondale, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb, has been developing the recycling equivalent of traffic school for homeowners who dump garbage in their recycling bins.

Some cities say they have already hit a plateau, maximizing what they can accomplish from curbside programs. The next discussion, said Stephanie Swanson, a spokeswoman for Portland’s Office of Sustainable Development, will look at how to generate less waste in the first place.

“Recycling has grown but so has garbage,” she said. “People are consuming so much more. People don’t think about ways they can reduce their waste. If you make them aware of what their consumption patterns are, you can reduce waste before it gets in the trashcan.

“It is definitely the next frontier.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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