Friday, April 6, 2007 | City Attorney Mike Aguirre proposed an overhaul of the city’s recycling policy Thursday that would require recycling to be provided in offices and apartment complexes, while fining homeowners who refuse to recycle.

Aguirre’s mandatory-recycling ordinance would require all city homeowners who receive free city trash service to participate in curbside recycling — though no specific fines or targeted recycling rates have yet been proposed for those who don’t.

Go Blue

  • The Issue: City Attorney Mike Aguirre has proposed an ordinance that would make it mandatory for homeowners to recycle. Apartment owners and managers would have to provide recycling to tenants.
  • What It Means: The overhaul would broaden the city’s recycling efforts. It would make recycling available in the many city apartment complexes that lack it. And homeowners who currently have curbside service could be fined if they don’t use it.
  • The Bigger Picture: The Miramar Landfill is filling up, and Aguirre said he sees the proposal as a way to reduce pressure on it. But it doesn’t have mayoral support and caught several affected parties by surprise.

The city attorney also wants office and apartment complex owners to provide recycling pickup to their tenants. While the city of San Diego 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 multi-family dwellings.

The city estimates residents without curbside recycling discard nearly 100,000 tons of bottles, aluminum cans and paper each year. About 65 percent of the waste tossed into the city’s landfill at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar is recyclable. Still, city officials say 52 percent of the city’s waste is diverted from being dumped at the landfill under the current structure.

Speaking at the landfill Thursday — using a blue recycling can as a podium — Aguirre said he was concerned the city was “dangerously close” to falling below a state-mandated target for diverting half of its waste from the landfill. Beginning July 1, homeowners should be required to recycle, he said, and apartment complexes and offices should begin offering recycling in 2008 — a process to be phased in over three years.

While Aguirre said fees would have to be imposed to make the recycling available, he did not provide any estimate of how much the proposal would cost.

“The Miramar landfill is rapidly filling up and we at this time do not have an alternative,” Aguirre said. “We’re engaging in a practice that’s very injurious to our environment — unnecessarily.”

The city’s Environmental Services Department, which Aguirre does not control, had been developing a similar ordinance last summer and had expected to formally propose it by last fall. But it did not. Aguirre said the city “has inexplicably postponed mandatory recycling,” and said he hoped to create the “legal imperative” to push that policy forward to the City Council.

The city’s current recycling service costs about $10 million annually. The Mayor’s Office estimated that Aguirre’s proposal would cost about $2.5 million annually, with a $3 million one-time cost of buying at least 60,000 new recycling bins.

“This would have significant cost ramifications for the city of San Diego,” said Fred Sainz, spokesman for Mayor Jerry Sanders. “Either the general fund is going to pay for it or citizens are going to pay for it. And if the general fund pays for it, we would be stretching an already overburdened general fund. And if it’s a fee, the mayor would not support [it].”

Sainz said the mayor would support an alternative — a proposed facility near the Miramar Landfill to sort and recycle construction debris. That would boost the city’s waste diversion rate more than a mandatory recycling program, city officials say, because construction debris accounts for more waste than do home and office recyclables.

City officials have estimated that an expanded recycling program would boost the city’s diversion rate about 3 percent, while the facility for construction and demolition debris — asphalt and concrete can be recycled — would boost it 5 percent to 6 percent.

Mandatory recycling is enforced in several other West Coast cities. 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.

Aguirre said his proposal would not be so draconian. But homeowners who do not recycle could be fined if they fail to recycle. His proposal does not outline how that would be enforced.

Recycling advocates hailed Aguirre’s proposal.

“Those recyclables that are part of this mandatory recycling ordinance are resources the city can make money on,” said Rich Flammer, a spokesman for Zero Waste San Diego, a nonprofit group that advocates for the elimination of all waste. “Initiating the program may be expensive, but in the long run, it’ll save the taxpayers money. [Recyclables] are worth a lot of money.”

The associations that would be most affected were more skeptical. Bob Pinnegar, executive director of the San Diego County Apartment Association, said many details still need to be resolved. Residents would need to be educated about recycling; space would need to be created for new recycling bins — potentially sacrificing valuable parking spots.

“We’re not opposed to recycling,” Pinnegar said. “It’s just whether we can do it in a thoughtful manner so it can have the least possible impact.”

Some attention focused simply on the fact that the proposal came from Aguirre, who as city attorney is charged with providing legal advice to the city, but is often criticized for reaching beyond his office’s scope into the policy realm.

“The city attorney didn’t talk to any stakeholders to ascertain the facts before coming up with the ordinance,” said Craig Benedetto, spokesman for the San Diego Building Owners and Managers Association. “It’s great the city attorney wants to get involved in recycling, but you should probably get the facts before you come up with a policy like this.”

Aguirre said he had sent a request to Council President Scott Peters to have his proposal docketed before the City Council. Peters’ spokeswoman said such a request hadn’t yet been received.

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