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S.D. Trash Police Sifting Through Residents' Garbage Bins

The police in San Diego just got more powerful -- the trash police that is. For years, the city’s code enforcers have rifled through your garbage in the blue bins checking for waste that cannot be re

The police in San Diego just got more powerful -- the trash police that is.  For years, the city’s code enforcers have rifled through your garbage in the blue bins checking for waste that cannot be recycled.

Grealy: That plate glass is a definite no-no. The only glass that can be recycled are glass bottles and jars.

But this year, San Diego’s trash inspectors get to examine your black bins to make sure you’re not dumping what can be recycled. A new city law requires people in homes, big apartment and condo buildings and large businesses to recycle.


Anthony: You as a generator, whether you’re in your home, apartment building, office building, grocery store, hospital, whatever, are required to separate your materials into designated categories

Richard Anthony is an international expert on resource management.

Anthony: This is the largest city in the world to tackle mandatory source separation.

Anthony lobbied the city aggressively to adopt the mandatory recycling ordinance. The idea had been bandied about City Hall for more than a decade. But it was tough to get environmentalists, businesses and politicians to agree. The issue resurfaced last spring when City Attorney Mike Aguirre proposed requiring homeowners, apartments and offices to recycle. But last summer, Mayor Jerry Sanders and his staff refused to participate in a discussion of the ordinance. In fact, Councilwoman Donna Frye, who heads the city’s Natural Resources and Culture Committee, had to summon a Sanders’ staffer to a meeting to talk about recycling.

Anthony: Afterwards, to all our surprise, the mayor said fine. We think this is probably a good idea but we want to hear what the stakeholders think.

Anthony says in the end, it wasn’t a hard sell.

Anthony: Everybody was in favor of it. Businesses got up. Passed unanimously and then it went to the city council and it passed 9-0. Miraculous.

Maybe it was a miracle, or maybe it was pragmatism. California mandates that the city divert half of its trash from the landfill. The city’s new recycling ordinance diverts a little more than that. But the public appears to be clamoring for more.

Grealy: There has been a big wave of requests for calls into our office to say how do we get a recycling program going.

Stephen Grealy is the waste reduction program manager for the city’s Environmental Services Department.

Grealy: I think as a society, we are definitely understanding that that is an important part of our daily lives.”

But there will be a learning curve.  Many San Diegans still don’t know what to put in the blue recycling bin.

Grealy: One of the things that really confuses people is that they look on the bottom and they’ll see a recycling symbol with a number inside it, just ignore that because that was put on by the plastics’ industry. It has nothing to do with recycling. Just think plastic bottles and jars, that’s all they need to remember.

But many people are still putting recyclables in the black trash bins.

Grealy: Cardboard is one that we find still. Sometimes people are unaware that that’s recyclable. It’s a very high quality recyclable. And cardboard extends to food packaging, shoe boxes, packaging. All of that material is recyclable. Basically, if you can tear it and it is paper, it can go in.

One-point-nine million tons of trash is sent to San Diego landfills each year and 2.1 million gets recycled. With the new ordinance, about 100,000 additional tons of trash will be diverted from those landfills. That’s good news for the environment -- bad news for the fiscal health of city hall which runs the Miramar Landfill.

Haynes: As the city increases the amount of recycling that is done, there’s less revenue that is paid.

Tom Haynes, the city’s fiscal and policy analyst, says the city depends on fees haulers pay to dump at the landfill to run its waste management program. The city stands to lose money for each of the 100,000 tons of material that is expected to be diverted from landfills to be recycled. Haynes says because the city doesn’t charge homeowners and some businesses for trash collection, it can’t pass any of that loss to consumers as private haulers do.

Haynes: The general fund has to absorb that cost. And that is really one of the big challenges that the city has been facing.

San Diego is one of the few cities in the country that doesn’t charge for trash collection -- this despite the fact that San Diegans produce more trash per capita than any other people in large cities in the world.

Haynes: It’s a very large cost center for the city. It’s over $35 million a year. For the greenery recycling, it’s over $7 million a year.

We inquired whether council members and the mayor think it’s time to ask residents to pay for their garbage pickup. Their answers were mixed and sometimes complicated. Mayor Sanders, Councilmembers Brian Maienschein and Kevin Faulconer said no.  San Diegans can’t be charged for trash collection unless the 1919 People’s Ordinance is repealed and that would require a public vote.

Donna Frye says it’s time to hold such a vote.  And if that happens and San Diegans agree to be charged for garbage pickup, Jim Madaffer says he’d support that. Council President Scott Peters says it’s possible to have a discussion about trash collection this year and place a measure on the ballot in November.

Here’s how Toni Atkins answered. “She said “We need to find additional revenue streams for the services the city provides.” Councilman Ben Hueso says he’s still studying the matter. And Councilman Tony Young declined to comment.   

San Diego’s leaders may not yet know how to stop the new recycling program from being a financial burden, but environmentalist Rich Anthony says reprocessing trash can be financial boon for everyone.

Anthony: Think about it. We’re on a coast where the biggest exports in California are waste paper and waste metal and waste plastic and right next door, the biggest buyers other than the Pacific Rim is Mexico. This is a market capital. These materials are now valuable.

Anthony says selling waste paper, metal and plastic could add up to $40 million to the economy.

Anthony’s next goal is to push cities across the county to adopt similar recycling rules to San Diego’s.

Anthony: It would be the equivalent of taking the auto exhaust out of every car in San Diego …if we recycled everything. That’s huge. That’s been documented …it’s a major, major thing.

And if you’re thinking San Diego has reached the pinnacle of going green, you’re wrong. There’s more in store. City officials and Anthony say non recyclable food and beverage containers like Styrofoam and plastic bags maybe restricted in the future.

Anthony: What really terrifies me is what we’ve done to the Pacific Ocean. It’s now a big sewer. We’ve got more plastic in the ocean than we have plankton. Plankton produces one-third of the oxygen for this planet. We’ve got condors that are sweeping birds who can fly around arctic and come down and grab their bottle caps to feed their children and are killing them. Every bit of plastic that is put in the ocean is still in the ocean because it doesn’t decompose. It is very, very frightening. And the only answer to this is tell the plastic companies that it’s going to be single used and thrown away. It’s too valuable. It’s a nonrenewable resource. You have to take it back.