The city of San Diego is once again calling for all residents and businesses to improve their efforts at trash recycling. We all know the practical reasons for increasing the diversion of recyclable materials from our landfills. There is the need to avoid the possibility of fines for not complying with state law (as remote as that is), the need to extend the life of our landfills (the city needs to ensure that they can continue to receive tipping fees from trash disposed at Miramar … sorry, cynical comment) and, more importantly, to make sure our society is managing itself in a sustainable way (because greenhouse gasses and global emissions are not a good thing).

On its face, the proposed mandatory recycling program makes sense (for all of the reasons stated above), except for the fact that the city has finally acknowledged that their public education efforts are weak and that their programs can’t extend to all areas of the city. Unfortunately, that hasn’t in the past prevented City Environmental Services Department (ESD) staff from saying that “voluntary efforts have failed,” and that “businesses continue to throw away too much recyclable material.”

Earlier this week, the Mayor’s Office convened the second public workshop on mandatory recycling. This time, city staff rolled out their draft “mandatory recycling ordinance.” One of the more interesting sound bites from this meeting was city staff’s acknowledgment while this is an “education based” ordinance, not “enforcement based,” they noted they did not have the money to educate the public about the need for recycling our trash, let alone how to comply with this new ordinance.

So, one has to ask, if this is an education based program and the city has no money for education, then who is going to provide or, more importantly, pay for the education? Will city staff recommend raising tipping fees at their landfill? Will they suggest increasing the AB 939 fee (aka the recycling fee) on trash taken to Miramar?

Let me be clear, I support a mandatory recycling proposal, as do our clients (and yes, for the’s serial commenters, I am a paid public affairs professional, do represent groups like BOMA and have a constitutional right to make my points like everyone else in our democracy).

While I believe public education is an important prerequisite, and wish the city had done a better job reaching out to residents and businesses alike, I recognize that the city does not have enough cash in its coffers to pay for such a program. That shouldn’t justify the need for a mandatory program, but it is a sad fact that will probably cause the ordinance to cruise through the public approval process.

The culprit of poor cash funding is, of course, the so-called People’s Ordinance.

This sacred cow relic from our city’s past has preserved free trash collection for single family home owners. Unfortunately, multi-family home owners and businesses have been discriminated against and forced to pay for their trash collection while single family home owners get a free ride. Ironically, it’s many of these business and tenancies, derided by city trash department staff for not doing enough, that have, in working proactively with their private trash hauler, established voluntary recycling programs for their buildings.

The facts speak for themselves. When construction and demolition waste is pulled out (that is a separate matter not considered by this ordinance), residential customers in the City represent the largest contributor to the waste stream. You can see this for yourselves on the streets when you drive around your single family neighborhood on trash day. Most of the black “trash” cans are stuffed full, most with potentially recyclable materials. When you look through the blue recycling bin, you find them nearly empty. Why? Is it the arguably underfunded education effort put forward by the city? Or is it the lack of connection between what you pay for trash collection and how much you throw away?

For energy and water, for example, the more you use the more you pay. If you conserve, your bill goes down. For single family home owners, it doesn’t matter how much trash you toss or how much you recycle. You pay the same amount … nothing …

The bottom line is this, that until the city does away with the “People’s Ordinance” and forces single-family home owners to pay for their trash collection, there will be no incentive for them to improve their recycling. Heck, let’s be creative and put together a tiered system. For the good recyclers, you get free trash pick-up. For those who don’t want to recycle (e.g. producers of a lot of trash) you pay some graduated amount for pick-up depending on how much you throw away.

For the private sector, the incentive already exists. We pay for our trash pick-up. That’s the same for multi-family home owners who have the cost of trash pick-up passed along to them in the form of rent or HOA fee increases. That’s not to say we can’t do a better job. Some of these properties don’t have programs and for those that do, there is a need for better education effort, but we’re working on it and a responsible recycling ordinance will help.

But, if we’re ever going to make a realistic dent in the waste stream going to our landfills, we’ll need to address the single-family side of this equation as well.


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