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Thursday, April 12, 2007 | A misty morning chill still blankets Chula Vista as Martie Solomon parks her truck in an anonymous subdivision cul-de-sac, sidles up to a black trashcan, lifts its lid and peers at the rubbish inside.

This can is trouble. There’s a Clorox bottle. (It’s recyclable.) And plastic wrap sits in the nearby recycling bin. (It’s not.)

Solomon ties an orange form to the handle. It begins: “Because you care…” She calls it an Oops Tag. It’s designed to remind Chula Vista residents — who must recycle, according to city law — what they can and can’t put in those big blue bins.

Solomon, a city of Chula Vista recycling specialist, will rummage through 54 more garbage cans this morning, making sure that city residents are abiding by the city’s mandatory recycling ordinance. Her two-hour-long routine — she calls it “Oops Tagging” — is an enforcement tool the city uses to pat recyclers on their backs, while reminding slackers that they could be better stewards of the environment.

At each can, Solomon pats down garbage bags like a too-curious airport screener, checking for clandestine cans and concealed plastics. Those who’ve done well get an encouraging note. Those who don’t get the Oops Tag.

Solomon’s morning checks are accented by the stiff smell of rotting garbage — “You get some maggots and stuff sometimes,” she says — but they make her feel like she’s raising the community’s environmental awareness.

She is one cog in Chula Vista’s mandatory recycling machine, helping to ensure that homeowners are tossing their aluminum, glass, plastic and paper where it belongs.

As the city of San Diego considers a mandatory recycling ordinance proposed last week by City Attorney Mike Aguirre, city officials have opportunities to learn from Chula Vista and other neighbors. Though their policies vary, most of the region’s cities already require residents to recycle.

Recycling is mandatory from Chula Vista to Oceanside. The county of San Diego requires its residents to recycle. The policies have been in place since the early 1990s, leaving San Diego as the last large city in the county without a mandatory policy. It is home to 1.3 million of the county’s 3 million residents, and an even larger portion of its working population.

Recycling program managers in cities with mandatory policies laud the city of San Diego for considering the ordinance. They say San Diego’s recycling policy lags behind most others in the region. While the city provides free trash and recycling services to residents of single-family homes, it doesn’t offer recycling pickup to more than 100,000 units in apartment complexes, condos and multifamily dwellings.

“It’s not an easy issue,” said Lynn France, Chula Vista’s environmental services program manager. “But you have to make it mandatory to get people to even start to look at solving the problems. Change is never easy. But it can be done.”

While most cities adopted mandatory ordinances more than 15 years ago, San Diego apartment residents and office dwellers without recycling today throw away an estimated 100,000 tons of recyclables annually. The city estimates that 65 percent of the rubbish thrown into the Miramar Landfill could be recycled. The landfill is projected to reach capacity between 2011 and 2013, and city officials don’t yet have an alternative.

A mandatory recycling program could delay the landfill’s closure, Aguirre said last week, while helping the city to continue diverting at least 50 percent of its waste away from the landfill, a target mandated by the state. It would require recycling to be provided in apartment complexes and offices, while threatening fines for those homeowners who currently have curbside recycling service.

Fines are rarely levied even in programs that allow them. Ester Beatty, a senior management analyst in Oceanside’s public works department, said tickets are issued only in egregious circumstances. Officials in Chula Vista and San Diego County said they do not recall writing tickets recently.

Beatty and other recycling program managers said implementing a plan in San Diego won’t be simple, but said their experiences bode well for the city.

The public wants to recycle, said Orelia DeBraal, a San Diego County recycling specialist. But the people need to be provided with the bins to do it, she said. And that requires education and cooperation with apartment complex and office owners.

“There isn’t one size fits all,” DeBraal said. “You really have to go in on an individual basis and customize it for each complex.”

Advocacy groups representing apartment and office owners say they want the city to address several issues before adopting any law. The city must examine who bears the cost, who is held accountable if residents don’t recycle, how education campaigns are organized and how space can be appropriately allocated to new recycling bins in cramped circumstances.

Michelle Miller, a spokeswoman for the San Diego County Apartment Association, acknowledged that some aspects of neighboring programs should be employed if San Diego City Council begins debating an ordinance. Miller noted, for example, Chula Vista city staff met with multi-unit property owners to discuss ways to accommodate new recycling bins.

“We just want to make sure there’s a dialogue with the city before something is pushed through,” she said, “so that they can work to come to an effective solution for everybody.”

Recycling advocates say San Diego’s proposed recycling ordinance is long overdue. Most cities in the region adopted mandatory programs in the early 1990s. Some cities such as El Cajon have gone the next step, adopting plans to zero out their waste.

“There’s a prevailing lack of political will,” said Rich Flammer, a spokesman for Zero Waste San Diego, a nonprofit that advocates for the elimination of all waste. “The (city’s) Environmental Services Department is pushing for a lot of these programs, but the political will has to be there, and it has to come from the top.”

Beyond the bureaucratic hurdles that must be leapt over, Solomon’s morning experience shows that not all members of the public are rabid recyclers. At one stop, a man confronted her.

“Why should I do this, when I don’t see anything beneficial to me?” he asked. A small dog yap-yap-yapped behind the man.

Solomon: “What about your children and grandchildren?”

“Ehh,” the man said dismissively. “This is not going to kill them.”

It is not known when the San Diego City Council will begin considering the ordinance. Pam Hardy, spokeswoman for Council President Scott Peters, said the issue would be referred to the council’s Natural Resources and Culture Committee. While Aguirre said he’d sent a notice to Peters last week requesting the issue to be docketed, Hardy said the letter has still not been received.

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

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