I have been working in the recycling industry for thirty years now.
It actually started out as a serve the people thing. My thesis for my masters was Alternative Forms of Decentralized Public Administration. I looked at student movements around the world and their activities in 1968 and then applied their organizing principles to American mass movements like food cooperatives and recycling centers. After our band of activists won the Associated Students election in 1971, I was appointed the Recycling Center Assistant Manager. It was a people's movement and we were in charge.
Last June, my daughter Laura graduated in the class of 2000 with a BA in Women's Studies from San Diego State University. She was in her senior year when she realized that she needed to pick a major. It came down to Public Administration or Woman's Studies. With my experience in government over the last thirty years, I could never advise her to pick a career in Public Administration.
I believe you can change things from the inside, but not without consequences.
One of first people I hired when I went to work as the Solid Waste Coordinator for the Fresno County Public Works Department in 1980 was a woman who had a degree in Women's Studies from Fresno State. She was the only applicant that answered yes to the question," Do you recycle"? We were able to do some good. We helped host the first national recycling congress. We also spent a lot of time siting, permitting, mitigating problems and apologizing for landfill.
During my watch as Principal Solid Waste Program Manager for the San Diego County Public Works Department all County landfills were engineered to meet California and Federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Subtitle B requirements. We funded from the tip fee to Cities or their haulers, grants for equipment, market development and gave cash payments for tonnage recycled. We provided over 3 million dollars annually for Household Hazardous Waste roundup events around the county. We passed and implemented a mandatory recycling ordinance that prohibited the land filling of designated recyclables including yard, multi-family and commercial waste. We built the worlds largest and most sophisticated "kind of dirty" Materials Recovery Facility (MRF). We were recognized as the best program in California in 1990, and the best regional program in the United States in 1993.
We reduced the tonnage at County landfills from 2.5 million tons in 1987 to 1.2 million tons in 1993.
As one of my Deputy Directors said to me in regard to my optimism and enthusiasm "No good deed goes unpunished". Political pressures were applied and the County Administrative office began calling for staff to criticize and attack the recycling programs as expensive and polluting. Staff had to make a decision to stand or bend. We refused to bend and so it goes that every action will have a reaction and in San Diego it led to the privatization of the County landfill system.
We had served the people and implemented the programs.
Increased recycling and mega site expansions in the Nineties made landfill capacity competitive and owners were taking short-term losses with lower tip fees to keep up cash flow to make payments. In San Diego County the implementation of a 50% surcharge to cover liability at County landfills became the breaking point. It became less expensive for some Cities to haul waste north to Los Angeles and Orange County or east to Arizona than to take it to San Diego County landfills and pay the surcharge.
The out of county hauling of refuse caused a strain on the San Diego County Solid Waste Enterprise Fund. Decreasing waste at the MRF and landfills forced the County to cut back solid waste services and eventually the County closed the MRF. The closure caused the banks that loaned the money to build the MRF to worry about their payments and the County was forced to buy them out to keep a favorable credit rating.
A new County Administrative Officer (CAO) came to town to solve the problem of Solid Waste. The new CAO requested proposals for sale of the system and cut a deal where all the operating landfills and the MRF would be sold to a private entity for $180 plus million dollars cash. A massive public relations program was initiated to persuade civic leaders that it was in the County "best interests" to sell the system. One of the key selling points stated repeatedly by the new CAO, was that despite running one of the best systems in the country for a half of a century, " the County "staff" did not possess the "core competency" to operate its landfills."
In one of the few public meeting where the sale of the County of San Diego Landfill and MRF system was discussed (most discussions were in closed session due to the negotiations), the Sierra Club, the League of Women Voters, the CRRA, and the Union (SEIU) all asked the Board of Supervisors to wait 30 days for a public discussion of privatization of public lands. Speakers begged that this decision be made with public debate and not in private closed sessions. One member of the Board of Supervisors responded to this with the comment that, "Maybe we need to make all of our decisions behind closed doors." The Board of Supervisors went on to approve the contract 5-0 that day.
Today, several former CAO's and solid waste management officials from San Bernardino County have been charged, and some already convicted, for bribery related to the award of contracts regarding the privatization of the operation of the County solid waste programs. The political process of divesting public property and services involving the private sector for solid waste programs and facilities in San Bernardino appears tainted.
An owner of a former San Diego County based Refuse Collection Company admitted and paid a multi-hundred thousand-dollar fine for reimbursing employees for making contributions to political campaigns for local and county elected officials. In most cases he and his employees regularly sent money to at least three elected officials in every City he had a franchise.
A recent newspaper article informs us that the tipping fee at the privatized county landfills will be raised to $43, up from $30, heading toward $50.
Today, the cities in San Diego County, obligated by law to implement their Recycling and Household Hazardous waste plans miss the luxury of a tipping fee to fund their programs. Lack of public discussion allowed the golden goose to be sold for a per-cent of what had been invested by the public and its future value in permitted landfill capacity. However the cash from the sale balanced the County budget, paid for a facelift of the County Administrative Building and provided several years of executive incentive bonuses.
The issue of who owns the liability from the bi-products of the garbage put in the landfill before they were sold has yet to be resolved. Unable to move from pro-recycling to anti-recycling I had to move on. The choice of being a pollution manager and an apologist for landfill was unacceptable. I tried Wastewater Management for a while.
I think requiring the cost of wasting to be born by the producer of the product is the right thing to do. Beverage container deposits fund the recovery infrastructure and effectively recover containers. The single use product industry is against this. After living through an era of government bashing it offends me to hear product manufactures proclaim that waste management is the governments responsibility. The relationship between landfills and the single use products industry is that one cannot get along without the other.
The unfairness is that we, who would conserve, reuse and recycle pay for pollution costs incurred by those who choose not to conserve.
Let the real cost of the product include its recycling cost. In a peoples' movement, we can vote with our dollars. If it is not recyclable we shouldn't buy it.
As for me, I am an active member of the Board of Directors the Grassroots Recycling Network. We are rallying recyclers around the world to use zero waste as a goal, and producer responsibility as a challenge. We have asked all recyclers to ask Coca Cola to use recycled beverage container materials when manufacturing more containers. Check our web site out at www.grrn.org. We are promoting an international peoples movement for zero waste, jobs from discards and ending welfare for wasting through elimination of tax subsidies and requiring producers to be responsible.
I think the government is the appropriate authority to protect and conserve our natural resources.
We need to stay vigilant and help our elected officials be strong and recognize that environmental quality is a priority. By doing this we will protect public administrators who are trying to comply the needs of all the people. We need to round up the 200 million recyclers in America and get on the same page regarding buying recycled, producer responsibility and ending welfare for wasting. The new millenium will bring on new pressures to find opportunities to conserve resources as the population of the world swells to the earth's loading capacity of 12 billion people. This may happen in my daughters' lifetime.