The hammer that never fell

Less than half of California’s jurisdictions have met waste-reduction deadlines, yet no jurisdiction has been fined

At Placer County’s landfill, workers pull recyclable materials from the waste stream by hand.

At Placer County’s landfill, workers pull recyclable materials from the waste stream by hand.

Photo by Larry Dalton

Lilia Clement has spent the last seven years digging through garbage. Every day, she stands in front of large conveyer belts of Placer County trash and sifts through eggshells, dirty diapers and fast-food wrappers to pull out plastic, aluminum and other recyclable materials.

To some, this job may seem disgusting, but Clement, a self-sufficient single mother of five, is proud of the way she earns her living. She said she believes in helping to preserve the environment through recycling.

Clement works at the Western Placer County Waste Management Authority’s Material Recovery Facility, known as the MRF (pronounced “murf”). The 300-acre operation outside Roseville was created to reduce the amount of garbage that is thrown into an adjacent landfill.

The MRF was formed to comply with state laws put into effect more than a decade ago, which required every city and county in California to divert and recycle 50 percent of its garbage by 2000 in order to preserve landfills that were reaching capacity quickly.

When Assembly Bill 939 was passed more than 10 years ago, legislative and public interest in recycling was strong, and the waste-reduction mandate was backed by the threat of punitive fines of $10,000 a day for jurisdictions that did not meet the requirements.

However, other political and environmental concerns have pushed landfills out of the spotlight, even if the problem remains. Although AB 939 was the catalyst for some progress, such as the MRF, only 205 of California’s 445 jurisdictions actually met the 50 percent goal. And not one of the tardy districts has been fined for its failure.

California’s Integrated Waste Management Board, the body in charge of enforcing AB 939’s mandates, recently announced that Placer and Yolo counties’ unincorporated areas had met or exceeded the required 50 percent rate. Left unsaid in that announcement was that only eight jurisdictions of the 22 in Sacramento, El Dorado, Yolo and Placer counties had met the requirement.

CIWMB spokeswoman Roni Java said that after the 2000 deadline passed, the law called for the board to look at each jurisdiction’s efforts individually and issue time extensions if a jurisdiction had made a “good-faith effort” to meet the tough requirements.

If the board determined that a particular jurisdiction had not made appropriate efforts, then that city or county was obligated to commit to a schedule that would bring it to the requirements. If that jurisdiction did not stick with the schedule, it could be fined. Java said that no Northern California jurisdictions were in danger of being fined right now.

“But I don’t have a crystal ball,” Java said. “That’s not to say that it will never happen, but a lot of local folks have made a tremendous effort to separate out and find markets for recyclable materials.”

Each jurisdiction in the four local counties has a variety of recycling, green waste, educational and composting programs dedicated to diverting waste from landfills. The city of Sacramento has 26 programs, including a new single-can recycling program that supplies residents with 90-gallon, mixed recycling containers. The program was implemented to help reach the 50 percent goal. Many areas have implemented new programs in an attempt to meet the 50 percent rate, but few areas seem to have taken such an aggressive effort as has Placer County.

If legislators were searching for panacea to help relieve the bloated landfills in California, the MRF is it. Other jurisdictions have added a curbside trash pickup or two, but Placer County has created a 300-acre recycling metropolis that recovers not only standards such as glass, plastic and paper, but also other recyclable materials such as copper, wood, grass clippings, concrete, magazines, large appliances and computers.

What benefit does the county receive for going above and beyond the call of duty? It’s hard to say, other than the fact that it has avoided those $10,000-a-day fines. But, then again, so did the counties that merely went through the motions.

The fact that the “50 percent by 2000” threat has proven to be largely illusory—whether because the goal was too high or because jurisdictions knew the threat of a fine was hollow—raises questions about other legislative efforts to set pie-in-the-sky goals.

Around the same time that it was setting waste-reduction goals, the Legislature also mandated that 10 percent of the vehicles sold in California by 2003 would have no emissions, something attainable only with electric vehicles and some clean-burning fuels.

A series of actions by the Air Resources Board has delayed and rolled back that mandate, so only a tiny fraction of the cars sold in California next year will be zero-emission vehicles. This is the same body charged with enforcing this year’s Assembly Bill 1493, which calls for reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2008.

Cynics might decry these long-term mandates as empty political posturing, but the proponents of such measures say they are useful tools even if targets aren’t met.

“I don’t know that it was ever an expectation that everyone would actually get to the 50 percent,” said Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste, a nonprofit environmental group that sponsored AB 939. “We wanted to set the bar high enough, but anytime you make a standard that high, you need to have a built-in safety net.”

Though Murray did not expect these goals to be met, Clement and the other 150 employees at the MRF probably did. In addition to the massive recycling operation they run, the MRF has a green-waste program that produces more than 10,500 tons of gardening compost a year.

MRF employees have salvaged 450,000 tons of materials since starting in 1996, but even that amounts to just a 23 percent diversion rate, despite the fact that their facility cost the county $22 million. Supplemental recycling programs are what helped Placer County meet the mandate.

The MRF serves six jurisdictions: Roseville, Rocklin, Lincoln, Loomis, Auburn and a part of unincorporated Placer County. Only two of these actually have met the 50 percent requirement. Placer unincorporated and Loomis squeaked past the deadline, but Roseville, Rocklin, Auburn and Lincoln all failed to make the numbers by 2000.

The city of Sacramento did not meet the requirements, but Jon Souza, waste-reduction coordinator for the city, contends that the numbers are not the point—the programs are what will make the difference.

“When we make a ‘good-faith effort,’ it’s not just trying to play a numbers game,” Souza said. “That’s where the challenge lies in all of this—in trying to provide the programs, not just trying to make the grade.”

And, though most may agree that what matters are changes in attitude and habits regarding recycling, one might question whether unattainable goals and empty threats are the best mechanism. Why threaten consequences, if none will truly come to pass?

“The programs they implement are necessary because, while there are no recycling laws, there are waste-diversion laws,” said Java. She said the Integrated Waste Management Board hopes to encourage people to recycle more to help the environment and that generally the board finds that people are responsive.

“Generally, Californians have a strong ethic of being stewards of the environment,” Java said. “People are beginning to understand that it goes far beyond not putting stuff in landfills. It’s about maintaining the environment.”

Statewide, Java said, Californians currently are diverting 42 percent of waste annually.

At the same time, however, Clement is still in Roseville sorting through her neighbor’s garbage while people in other jurisdictions are doing a lot less and reaping the same rewards.

The landfills are not filling up as quickly as they were, but they are filling up faster than they would if every jurisdiction had the commitment Placer County displays. Everyone agrees that recycling is good and that increasing landfills is bad, but the question of how best to force social and environmental progress is one that will be recycled for years to come.