The Morning Report
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Tuesday, June 5, 2007 | A City Council committee considering City Attorney Mike Aguirre’s mandatory recycling proposal asked for more information Monday, deferring a recommendation on an ordinance that would require all city residents and workers to recycle.

As the city considers the ordinance that would make it mandatory to recycle aluminum cans, glass bottles and paper, it is also discussing ways to pull construction debris out of the waste streaming into the Miramar Landfill.

Recycle This

  • The Issue: The city attorney has proposed a law that would make recycling mandatory for all San Diego residents and office dwellers.
  • What It Means: The ordinance got its first public airing Monday, when many questions were raised about specifics that remain uncertain, such as how much the plan would cost to implement.
  • The Bigger Picture: While most cities in the region have mandatory recycling ordinances, the city does not. With the Miramar Landfill’s closure projected by 2012, officials are looking for ways to forestall the inevitable.

But the committee raised questions about San Diego’s recycling program for construction debris. The council approved a plan in 2005 to build a debris-recycling station at the landfill, though one was never built. The Mayor’s Office said Monday the facility is no longer needed.

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, San Diego is faced with a recycling policy that 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 businesses, apartment complexes, condos and multifamily dwellings.

Most cities in the region adopted mandatory ordinances more than 15 years ago. City officials estimate that San Diego apartment residents and office dwellers without recycling today throw away an estimated 100,000 tons of recyclables annually — about 7 percent of the garbage that winds up at the landfill.

Aguirre has proposed an ordinance that would require all city homeowners who receive free city trash service to participate in curbside recycling. (Participation is currently voluntary.) The law would also require office and apartment complex owners to provide recycling pickup to their tenants.

Council members showed support for the ordinance, though the Mayor’s Office has not backed it because of its potential costs, said Jeff Gattas, a mayoral aide.

While the proposal spells out specific implementation dates and the legal framework, many uncertainties remain. The proposal’s costs have not been spelled out. The Mayor’s Office has not analyzed them, nor has Aguirre. They cannot say how much the ordinance would cost businesses, apartment owners or the city.

Business advocates, building and apartment associations and waste haulers all said more study is needed before adopting the ordinance. They expressed concern about how the ordinance would be implemented, how residents would be educated about recycling and how space can be appropriately allocated to new blue bins in cramped buildings.

The council committee agreed that the Mayor’s Office should study the concerns and report back. No timeframe was specified, though City Councilwoman Donna Frye said she would schedule another discussion on mandatory recycling at the natural resources committee’s June 20 meeting.

Frye said the city has considered numerous mandatory recycling ordinances and never had the leadership to adopt one. It needs to be studied and pushed forward now, she said.

“We need to do this,” she said. “We’ve been waiting awhile.”

Frye also expressed concern about the progress of an ordinance approved in 2005 that made recycling of construction debris mandatory.

Recyclable debris such as asphalt, lumber and concrete constitutes about 35 percent of the waste dumped annually at the landfill. Elmer Heap, director of the city’s Environmental Services Department, acknowledged the city needs to do more to pull construction debris out.

Though it was adopted in 2005, the law required for a debris recycling station to first open inside city limits before the ordinance took effect. The city’s Environmental Services Department selected a contractor but never approved the contract. The facility was never built.

Heap wouldn’t offer any details about why the contract was never awarded. Asked about it in an interview, he said: “As we looked at that issue, it became very apparent that siting was not necessary at this time.”

Frye questioned why the facility had been ignored, despite receiving council approval. She chided Heap for briefing the council committee meeting without any supporting materials explaining the recycling facility’s delay.

“You do not show up at this committee with no report, nothing in writing,” Frye said, “and simply tell us this is not going forward.”

EDCO, a local waste hauler, has opened a private facility in Lemon Grove, though it sits outside San Diego city limits, meaning that it didn’t trigger the mandatory construction recycling ordinance. Heap suggested that the law should be reworked to take effect in late 2008.

So far, the EDCO facility has been underutilized. While it can handle 1,000 tons of construction debris daily, haulers are only dumping 100 tons. Because of fees the city charges waste haulers, taking construction materials to the recycler costs 50 percent more than simply dumping it at the landfill.

The cash-strapped city benefits by keeping the waste headed to the landfill. A waste hauler who dumps a ton of debris at the landfill is charged $43. All of that money goes to the city.

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.

A 2005 report said the city could lose more than $6 million annually if the debris is recycled.

“The fee structure raises the cost of recycling those materials well above the cost of just dumping it in the landfill,” said Craig Benedetto, a spokesman for several developers. “Which is not incentivizing recycling. It’s all money that’s driving this.”

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

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