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Thursday, June 21, 2007 | A City Council committee pushed back today against a proposal from Mayor Jerry Sanders to wait until late 2008 to require recycling of construction and demolition debris.
The natural resources committee sought a more rapid analysis of the costs of requiring the debris recycling early next year. The committee asked for the Mayor’s Office to recommend funding sources that could replace city fees that effectively add a $19 tax to every ton of debris recycled. The report is due in early September.
“We are highly encouraging our residents to throw away large amounts of trash,” Councilman Ben Hueso said. “This is a matter of great urgency. This is an item we can’t take the path of least resistance on.”
Recyclable debris such as asphalt, lumber and concrete constitutes about 35 percent of the waste dumped annually at the Miramar Landfill, which under best-case scenarios will close in 2015.
In 2005, the City Council approved an ordinance that would require homebuilders and others to recycle the debris. But the requirement was contingent on a debris-recycling facility opening inside city limits. The council approved a facility at the Miramar Landfill and the city’s Environmental Services Department selected a contractor to build it — but never approved the contract. The facility was never constructed.
While a private debris recycler has opened in Lemon Grove, it didn’t trigger the dormant ordinance because it is located outside San Diego city limits. The facility, operated by EDCO, a private waste hauler, has been underutilized since its opening — running at about one-tenth of capacity.
The reason: Taking waste there costs 50 percent more than dumping it at the landfill because of fees the city charges waste haulers. The cash-strapped city financially benefits by maintaining its environmentally unfriendly policy of keeping recyclable waste headed to the landfill.
A waste hauler who dumps a ton of debris at the Miramar Landfill is charged $43. The city keeps all of that money.
Taking that same ton to the recycling facility costs much more. The private facility charges $46 per ton to dump. And the city tacks on two more fees for waste generated in San Diego, which push the cost to $65.
Elmer Heap, director of the city’s Environmental Services Department, told the council committee that recycling might be the right thing to do for the environment but said doing so would cost the city. A 2005 report said the city could lose more than $6 million annually if the debris is recycled.
Heap’s argument was a study in contradictions. He acknowledged that the city would be in a jam when the Miramar Landfill closed and that the costs for city residents without city-funded trash service will “increase dramatically.” Having just one option for dumping waste — the privately owned Sycamore Landfill — is not desirable, Heap said, though the city has no other backup plan once Miramar reaches capacity.
At the same time, Heap lamented that recycling and diverting waste from the landfill would cost the city money.
“We’ve just got to appreciate,” Heap said, “that if we waive the fees, we impact ourselves financially. We’re going to have to pay. People are going to have to pay.”
But Heap could not provide any analysis of whether recycling and its short-term costs outweigh the long-term benefits of lengthening the landfill’s life. In an interview, Heap said the city was looking at the issue, but had no documents detailing any such comparison.
Several people who addressed the council urged faster action in making construction debris recycling mandatory before late 2008.
“Why are we waiting until 2008?” asked Wayne Williams, a city resident and San Diego County recycling official. “We only have five years left at the Miramar Landfill. Don’t wait on this. Do it as fast as possible.”
The Miramar Landfill is currently expected to close in 2012, though it is seeking the military’s permission to stack trash 20 feet higher, potentially extending its life to 2015. More than half of the garbage discarded there annually is recyclable.
As the landfill’s closure draws nearer, the City Council is reexamining its recycling policies, which lag behind most 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 businesses, apartment complexes, condos and multifamily dwellings.