By RICHARD RISEMBERG
I recently was invited by the city of Los Angeles to hear all about garbage. So I pedaled downtown and mounted the elevator to the sumptuous art deco Tom Bradley Room at the very top of City Hall's tower to hear the word on waste in L.A.
Much of the contention expressed in these pages recently has had to do with environmental issues, from petulance over permitting to the raucous shouting matches spurred by plans to reduce diesel pollution stemming from longshore operations.
The old ways of business have treated waste and pollution as something to throw over your shoulder in the expectation that "someone else" would take care of it whether Uncle Sugar or Mother Earth. But now, as the biosphere totters under repeated assaults on its air, water, soil and as all the interconnected systems, natural and social, that depend on the Earth (which is all of them, including the economy and, not least, our own bodies) begin to suffer, we have come to realize that we must discover new ways to live ways that allow us to do well by doing good. Because, as the rice riots of recent weeks have shown, a dollar in hand means nothing when there's nothing to buy.
The Los Angeles Department of Sanitation has made many missteps over the years in trying to accommodate the ever-growing volumes of trash and garbage our city's individuals and businesses generate just say the words "Sunshine Canyon" in some parts of L.A. if you want to start a fight!
But unlike most organizations, public or private, that ignore problems in hopes that time will render the issues uninteresting, the Sanitation Department took a serious look at not just the problem, but at itself, and came up with a better way to approach the future.
The department went to its "stakeholders," that is, to representatives of everyone in Los Angeles who is affected by, or who affects, the problems of trash and garbage: not just consultants, not just activists, not just businesses, but all those and more. To quote: "Neighborhood Councils and community organizations, multifamily residents, businesses, environmental advocates, solid waste professionals, academia, labor and religious leaders" got involved, including everyone from the Old Guard to the Young Turks.
An advisory panel of 1,500 people who both create and suffer from trash and garbage in our city met, and after a year of consultations, the department has written up (and what large organization can resist an acronym?) SWIRP: the Solid Waste Integrated Resource Plan, whose goal is Zero Waste nothing thrown away.
Several Japanese and European regions have already almost achieved this goal, which means that the technological foundation for our effort is largely in place; what we need now are the organizational, social and financial structures that can make it happen.
The next phase of the Zero Waste plan will determine the needs to be addressed, their priorities and the means to make it all work. It will not be a top-down effort, and the city our city needs the participation of businesses, organizations and individuals to make it possible.
Experience elsewhere has shown that, following Paul Hawken's metaphorical maxim of "Waste Equals Food," that there will indeed be opportunities not only to save in operational expenses from the proper management of what used to be thrown away, but also plenty of chances to do well while doing good.
It's no longer "business as usual" on planet Earth, and it behooves us here in Los Angeles not to be left behind, unrecycled, in the dustbin of history.
I strongly recommend that everyone reading this visit the Department of Sanitation's zero waste Web site, at zerowaste.lacity.org, to see what's in it for you.
Richard Risemberg is co-editor of the urban sustainability Webzine the New Colonist, publisher and editor of bike commuter Webzine Bicycle Fixation, and owner of a small business that designs and manufactures clothing for bicycle commuters. He lives and works in Los Angeles.
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