Cut Back on Landfill Trash Flow By Targeting Mass of Packaging


Southern California long has been a trendsetter when it comes to disposable consumption.

We love our plastic water bottles. We gobble up single-serve containers of cottage cheese and fruit. And the plague of plastic plates and cutlery has even afflicted sit-down restaurants.

But when a local landfill runs out of space and needs to expand, resident opposition can be overwhelming. Thus the solution: send the trash far away, out of sight and out of mind.

It's a lesson that the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts has learned well as it develops long-term plans to haul trash by rail to one of two distant desert landfills, including one at the doorstep of Joshua Tree National Park.

Does it really have to be this way?

For not only has California embraced consumerism, it has been on the forefront of environmental protection by adopting AB 939, a landmark law that requires localities to cut landfill waste 50 percent. That law generally has been a success story, with curbside greenwaste and recycling now commonplace.

Yet with the region and state's population continuing to grow, AB 939 is yesterday's news. What's now needed are efforts to cut a growing stream of waste that totals 38,000 tons daily in Los Angeles County alone the rough equivalent of junking 20,000 Honda Accords.

Doing this without significant expansion in local landfill capacity seems like an overwhelming task. But through a combination of redoubled recycling efforts, laws that require manufacturers and retailers to take responsibility for their products' disposal, and new technologies that can transform waste into compost and other useful products, the need for landfill expansion might be sharply reduced.

The city of Los Angeles, for example, has a certified recycling rate that tops 60 percent, better than many cities a fraction of its size. But it is only now starting to recycle trash from its 600,000 multifamily units that generate 700,000 tons a year.

Similarly, Los Angeles is just starting a pilot food-scrap recycling program at restaurants. Scraps will be picked up at 14 establishments and sent to a company in the San Fernando Valley that will compost them anaerobically in huge plastic sacks, turning the food waste into marketable fertilizer.

There are limits to this kind of traditional recycling. For one thing, it can be costly. Secondly, it is effective only to a point; roughly one-third of residential trash is just that contaminated plastic and other waste that generally has few uses.

Thus, a second strategy must involve reducing the amount of unnecessary trash entering the marketplace.

There's a reason that supermarkets now package four pears in rigid plastic containers: the cost of packaging is relatively inexpensive.

The producer of that packaging, as well as the retailer distributing it and people consuming it, all have been shielded from disposal costs. But a 1-cent fee for every plastic sack would likely put an end to the practice of double bagging single cartons of milk.

An even bigger move would be to adopt European Union "producer responsibility" regulations that require manufacturers of big ticket items such as cars to be responsible for their disposal once their useful life is over.

Though such a law would engender intense opposition, the Legislature last year passed an e-waste bill aimed at keeping computer monitors and other components out of landfills (though its mandatory "take back" provisions didn't make it into law).

Finally, there's a host of new "conversion" and "transformational" technologies though untested on a large scale that promise to convert currently unrecyclable trash into useful products.

A Hanford company called Plastic Energy California LLC plans to break ground this month on a plant that will convert plastic trash into 4 million gallons of diesel fuel annually, using a proprietary process that melts resin without burning. A Santa Monica company, BioConverter Inc. plans to build a plant in Lancaster that will turn lawn clippings into fertilizer, poultry feed and compressed natural gas good enough to power vehicles.

California Environmental Protection Agency head Terry Tamminen, an outspoken opponent of hauling trash to desert locations, believes community trash problems should be solved locally and he envisions the plant as the first of many statewide.


Proposal: Reducing trash production and disposal to avoid the need for significant expansion of local landfills or hauling trash by rail to the desert

Obstacles: Society's desire for convenience and low-cost disposal fees, questions about new technologies and the political power of businesses dependent on current wasteful practices

Cost: Some steps could actually save money, but others could cost many millions of dollars

Time Frame: Some advances can be made immediately, others could be five or 10 years away or longer

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