By David Liebler.
The Los Angeles County Public Works office building in the City of Alhambra stands out ominously against the surrounding cityscape. Its stark, blue-tinted windows exemplify the symmetry and seamlessness of the building’s cube shape. Outside, along one side of the building, another project stands out – but in a different way than the structure that looms overhead. Brilliant colors from blooming flowers and plants are abundant; you can hear the buzzing of bees and smell numerous fragrances.
It’s a demonstration garden displaying how organic (food) waste can be recycled; and it’s a living example of the County’s ambitious “Roadmap to a Sustainable Waste Management Future.” Started in 2014, the Roadmap creates a framework for strategies and initiatives the County can use to decrease its reliance on landfills by maximizing the recovery of items. Overall, the plan includes more than 100 initiatives aimed at maximizing the recovery of products, materials and energy from waste. The Roadmap is organized into three focus areas: 1) unincorporated areas; 2) regional/countywide; and 3) the county’s own operations.
Los Angeles County developed the Roadmap because it was becoming crystal clear that the practice of dumping waste in landflls is not sustainable – especially in a County the size of 10 million people. A regional approach was needed.
“If we keep going at the rate we are going we will quickly run out of landfill area,” said County Public Works Director Mark Pestrella. “And it’s just not acceptable anymore to be creating more landfills when the materials are very good for reuse.”
Development of the Roadmap necessitated strong collaboration, starting with a working group comprised of 10 county departments, board offices, the county executive office and special districts. Once the Roadmap was in place, staff began implementing a key component that calls for working closely with the County’s 88 cities and the private sector. Pestrella is quick to laud the great collaboration between the County Sanitation District and the City of Los Angeles for working closely with the County to get rid of silos and focus on what’s best for the region.
The amount of trash created in Los Angeles County is staggering: 10 million residents generate about 14 pounds of garbage per day per person. In the unincorporated area alone, 2.9 million tons of trash are generated annually. “It’s a tremendous amount of material goods going off to be wasted in the landfill,” Pestrella said. “There’s some good use for those materials and what we are proposing is turning it into something useful.”
The County is also looking at its own facilities, what they generate in terms of trash, and how that waste can be recycled. Take the aforementioned demonstration garden. It’s the result of organic (food) waste diverted by employees at the building from the facility’s kitchen – thanks to a little help from the department’s tiniest workers: worms.
Beyond waste reduction, the Roadmap also has a larger greenhouse gas component since landfills are a source of methane gas. The plan’s initiatives also touch on meeting current and future regulations, such as AB 32, which requires greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction.
The Roadmap’s long-term goals are ambitious: 80 percent diversion from landfills by 2025, 90 percent diversion by 2035, and 95-plus diversion by 2045. Pestrella acknowledges they are “really, really aggressive goals,” but quickly points out that “people want to do this. It’s not hard to sell. We’ve got a lot of momentum behind us.”
“I do think we are going to get there because you are going to see people’s behavior change and you are seeing a great investment being made,” Pestrella said. “We’re seeing a lot of people jump in and want to get engaged in this area.”
Los Angeles County’s Roadmap to a Sustainable Waste Management Future was honored as part of the 2016 CSAC Challenge Awards, which recognize the most innovative best practices developed by California Counties.
David Liebler is the Director of Public Affairs & Member Services for the California State Association of Counties.