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Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2007 | Mayor Jerry Sanders is on board with mandatory recycling.

The mayor, who had previously rejected calls for expanding the city’s lagging recycling policy, has reversed course and proposed a law that would require city residents to recycle their cans, newspapers and glass bottles.

His proposal would also make recycling available to thousands of apartment, condo and office dwellers who lack it. Blue bins would be phased in, with the largest apartments (more than 100 units) and office buildings (more than 20,000 square feet) required to provide recycling by January 2008.

Any special event requiring a city permit would be required to provide recycling bins.

If approved by the City Council, the proposal — similar to one introduced by City Attorney Mike Aguirre in April — would serve to extend the life of the city-owned Miramar Landfill. The city estimates that the landfill will close in 2012, though it is seeking permission to stack trash 20 feet higher, potentially extending the landfill’s life to 2015.

With recyclables constituting more than half of the garbage discarded annually at the landfill, San Diego still has a recycling policy that lags behind most in the region. While the city provides 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. Many cities in the area adopted mandatory recycling policies in the early 1990s.

The city estimates those residents discard 100,000 tons of recyclables annually. That’s equal to throwing away the weight of the Empire State Building every three-and-a-half years.

Sanders has previously said the costs of mandatory recycling made it too expensive for the cash-strapped city. But the city cannot yet say how much the new policy will cost the city government or the building owners who would have to pay trash haulers to provide recycling. Still, Sanders has come around since making those statements.

“[The mayor] started to hear contrary voices to that, he started to hear people wanting to have something in place,” said Bill Harris, a spokesman for Sanders. “It appeared there would be a workable way.”

Sanders’ proposal echoes the ordinance that Aguirre had recommended in April, though it includes more specifics and addresses several concerns that apartment and office owners had raised.

It would allow the city to grant exemptions if building owners don’t have space for recycling bins. It spells out an effort to educate residents and workers about what can be recycled. And it would slowly ramp up, with all apartments and offices expected to be recycling by Jan. 1, 2010. The largest buildings would come first; medium-sized buildings would be required to recycle in 2009; smaller complexes would be recycling by 2010.

Stephen Grealy, the city’s recycling program manager, said the phased-in schedule was necessary to allow waste haulers enough time to revamp their truck fleets.

Recycling proponents said the timeframe was not ambitious enough. Aguirre called Sanders’ proposal “a good start,” but said waiting until 2010 for small apartment complexes was too long.

“The key is to get it done as quickly as we can,” Aguirre said.

Craig Benedetto, a spokesman for the San Diego Building Owners & Managers Association, said the schedule was too aggressive and, if approved, would leave a narrow window for large building owners to comply.

“They’re setting up business owners for failure,” Benedetto said. “It’s not like you can just flip on a switch and — boom — have a recycling program.”

Benedetto said the final ordinance, which will be released Sept. 21, should ensure that enforcement penalties would be assessed against the responsible tenant — not the building owner.

But enforcement would not likely be a priority, Grealy said. The proposal calls for an emphasis on education with compliance as the goal and fines as a final resort. A fine schedule has not been outlined yet.

It would also allow office buildings — including some city offices — smaller than 5,000 square feet to be exempted from the requirement. The city was unable to say Monday how many of its buildings that would impact.

City Councilwoman Donna Frye, a longtime recycling advocate, said she wanted the ordinance to include objective criteria to determine when an office or apartment building would be exempted. Such waivers should not be at the sole discretion of city staff as currently proposed, she said.

“You need to have very understandable criteria,” she said, “not just for the public, but also for the people who are trying to comply and may need an exemption.”

While criticisms hit the fringes of Sanders’ proposal, none attacked the underlying premise: That more San Diegans should be recycling.

“I’m glad the mayor is seeing the light,” Frye said. “Because it’s the right thing to do. It saves money and helps the environment. It doesn’t get any easier than that.”

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

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