Los Angeles: City of zero waste angels
Best known as home to the rich and famous of the film-making industry, Los Angeles is, it turns out, quite committed to the idea of zero waste. Jennifer McDowall reports.
The thought that Los Angeles, the second largest city in the most wasteful country in the world, might soon send zero waste to landfill might sound fanciful, but is exactly what the megacity, with its four million residents, is aiming for.
Historically, LA has been quite landfill-dependent, especially after Mayor Sam Yorty abolished early recycling programmes in favour of landfilling in the 1960s. In those days, compared to other big cities in the US, LA had plenty of room for landfill development in the more rural surrounding areas, and in 2012, the city was still sending nearly three million tonnes to landfill every year. In 2013/14, LA diverted 76.4 per cent of waste from landfill, but current Mayor Eric Garcetti wanted more, and launched the ‘sustainable city plan’ to achieve zero waste status by 2025.
The ambitions are not confined to the city, however, but shared across Los Angeles County, the most populated county in the US, which in 2014 generated 22 million tonnes of waste. The vast majority of its 10.1 million residents live in one of 88 cities with around one million living outside cities in ‘unincorporated communities’. The county’s board of supervisors has a truly epic goal for all cities and communities in the county to achieve zero waste, albeit on a slightly longer timescale than the LA city plan.
In 2014, the board adopted the ‘Roadmap to a sustainable waste management future’, a framework of strategies to increase diversion from landfills by ‘placing a greater emphasis on maximising the benefits and use of materials’. The roadmap sets landfill diversion targets of 80 per cent for 2025, 90 per cent for 2035 and 95+ per cent for 2045. Its implementation has so far increased diversion rates to 62 per cent (of which energy-from-waste accounts for just two per cent, according to the county’s figures), with landfilled waste for the county falling to 8.2 million tonnes, 38 per cent of total waste produced.
According to Coby Skye, Senior Civil Engineer at the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, the biggest driver behind LA County’s progressive waste management policies has been the introduction of state laws requiring an increase in diversion from landfill. He notes, though, that creating green jobs, improving the environment and reducing pollution are big factors too: “I think there is a certain ethic for protecting the environment that has driven California, and the LA region in particular, to be more proactive in reducing the dependence on landfills, increasing our recycling rates and doing more to protect the environment, so I think that has driven a higher standard.”
Currently, most county residents have a three-bin kerbside collection system comprising of recycling, residual waste and garden waste bins. Recycling is collected weekly as a mixed stream of paper, cardboard, glass, metal and plastic and is taken to a materials recovery facility, where waste streams are separated, baled and sold. The range of plastics collected is market driven and has grown over the years to include those considered the most valuable. Residents currently dispose of their food in residual waste bins, meaning in 2014 an estimated 1.6 million tonnes of organic waste made up around 27 per cent of the landfill waste stream. According to Skye, who manages policy and programme development of the Environmental Programmes Division, state laws focusing on the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have helped accelerate policies for waste reduction and recycling and change focus to long-term sustainability, including diverting organic waste from landfill: “Organic waste is the largest fraction of the [residual] waste stream, so by separating it we should be able to achieve a pretty big reduction in the amount of waste we send to landfills. Organic waste in landfills is also a significant source of GHG emissions so that’s why organic waste has become a focus.”
Since 2012, larger businesses have been required by law to sign up to a recycling service and, as of 2016, this includes adopting a food waste service. LA County is collaborating with businesses to trial processing their separated food waste at existing anaerobic digestion (AD) facilities in the county, which up until now have only been used to treat wastewater. In the next few years, as separation targets increase, more AD facilities will become operational and households will also be required to participate. In addition, trial food waste vehicles are being fuelled with ethane purified from biogas produced at AD facilities, providing a ‘closed loop’ process that will reduce reliance on fossil fuels. Skye believes the trials are a successful way to begin diverting more organic waste from landfill: “[New facilities] will be very important as we ramp up the organic waste diversion law so that more material is separated for diversion. Essentially, the law helps to make sure there’s enough material being separated so that it’s economically viable to develop the facilities.”
Skye is adamant that diversion targets will not be met simply by increasing traditional mass-burn incineration. Instead, the focus will be on source reduction, reuse and recycling, though the county foresees a role for advanced thermal treatment. “Hard to recycle” materials, like medical waste, will be sent to new pyrolysis and gasification facilities to recover energy or fuel from these materials. These new technologies use high temperatures to break down materials and will prevent potential pollution caused by the feedstock material. The county estimates each facility could reduce GHG emissions by approximately 2.31 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent over its operational lifetime, the equivalent of taking 480,000 passenger vehicles off the road for a whole year. Skye comments: “As we get to these higher diversion rates, we’re getting to those materials that are difficult to handle but we still don’t just want to send those materials to landfill. At best, they’re just sitting there, at worst, they might cause later environmental damage. For us, it makes a lot more sense to use waste-to-energy or conversion technologies to recover products from those materials.”
Several state-wide extended producer responsibility (EPR) bills have been effective in encouraging manufacturers to play a role in waste reduction. The California Redemption Value Programme (CRV), introduced as part of the 1986 ‘Bottle Bill’, allows consumers to collect the 5-10 cents built in to the price of drinks products when they return packaging. In the same way, the Paint Stewardship Programme, implemented in 2012, has increased the amount of paint recycled and saves the county nearly US$1 million (£709,000) a year. LA County officials have now agreed to develop a pharmaceutical waste and sharps waste EPR programme, prior to the implementation of a legal requirement.
In their quest to divert increasing amounts of waste from landfill, LA County is using “every tool available to communicate with residents”, according to Skye.
As well as the usual website and active social media presence, the county also has monthly stakeholder meetings, sends out newsletters to residents and even broadcasts video segments on a county TV channel. Many programmes have workshops where people can learn new skills, and artists are involved in developing creative methods of public engagement.
Skye seems pleased with how residents have embraced sustainability and advises other cities with zero waste ambitions to research well and start small: “Research within the waste stream and target those material types that are the largest components or the material type that is most problematic. Definitely look at programmes from all over the world and figure out which ones are most effective. Try new programmes on a pilot basis and see what works before they’re rolled out.”
Initiatives that are currently ‘working’ include household hazardous waste round-up events, edible food donation programmes, online-only documents, water bottle refill stations and sustainable gardening workshops, which, to quote the roadmap, show that ‘sustainable is attainable’ in LA county.