At a June 4 meeting of the San Diego City Council's Natural Resources and Culture Committee, Donna Frye, the committee's chair, formally requested that someone from Mayor Jerry Sanders' office take a look at a mandatory recycling ordinance proposed by City Attorney Mike Aguirre. Frye asked the mayor's people to report back on June 20 (that date was later pushed back to July 18).
At a July 17 press conference, Sanders said that neither he nor his staff had seen Aguirre's proposal and therefore weren't prepared to discuss it the next day.
"The city attorney has never given it to us," Sanders said. "We've asked for it.... Staff will be at the [July 18] hearing, but they won't be able to participate because they have not seen [the ordinance]."
That statement isn't accurate.
A mayoral staffer, Jeff Gattas, was given a copy of the ordinance and supporting material before the June 4 committee meeting. At the meeting, Gattas read a prepared response from the mayor, taking a position against the ordinance. Staff from the city's Environmental Services Department (ESD) were also at that meeting, though they left before the committee wrapped up its discussion.
During a phone interview this week, Fred Sainz, the mayor's spokesperson, interrupted a CityBeat reporter who was pointing out that Gattas had a copy of the ordinance. Sainz said he had to get off the phone but would call back. By press time, he hadn't done so.
Earlier in the interview, Sainz said Sanders plans to come up with his own ordinance. There will be two meetings in August where the public can weigh in, but the mayor remains firm in his opposition to mandatory recycling.
"This is certainly not a confrontational issue," Sainz said, "but Jerry Sanders now leads ESD, and we want to make sure that the ordinance that he proposes is one that he can support and one that has been through a process he believes is important."
Both Frye and the City Attorney's office say the issue isn't being handled with the urgency it demands.
"We can study the problem for another two years while the waste tonnage just goes up and the problem gets worse, or we can attack the problem now-this isn't rocket science," said Deputy City Attorney Grace Lowenfeld, Aguirre's point-person on the ordinance.
In San Diego, the average person disposes of 8.4 pounds of trash per day-only residents of Irvine and Ontario dispose of more trash. In San Jose, that number's half as much: 4.2 pounds of trash per person, per day. In L.A., it's 5.3 pounds. Why? Residents of those cities are better at recycling, reusing and diverting waste.
A 1989 state law required all cities and counties to reduce the amount of trash going to landfills by 50 percent or face a $10,000-per-day fine. San Diego struggled to hit the mark (the state deferred the fine) until 2005, when an audit showed a 52-percent diversion rate. Regardless, it's estimated that within five years, the Miramar landfill-the city's only municipal dump-will be full.
In April, Aguirre proposed making recycling mandatory in San Diego. Critics say it was hastily drawn up, not well-thought-out and needed input from residents and business owners, known in bureaucratese as "stakeholders."
Aguirre says his ordinance isn't new-it's based on one ESD had been working on in 2005, one that Frye says was the product of years of discussion, analysis and public input. The ordinance, Frye said, was a promise made to the state's Integrated Waste Management Board two years ago, which was getting grouchy about San Diego's waste-reduction problems.
"This has been analyzed, it has been reviewed, it has been stakeholdered," Frye said.
Proof that a mandatory recycling ordinance has long been in the works is in a letter then-City Manager Lamont Ewell sent to the county grand jury in 2005, in response to a report that criticized the city for its "non-aggressive recycling program." In it, Ewell said "mandates and/or economic incentives need to be instituted," adding that "incentivizing recycling in a voluntary system is difficult."
The grand jury, in fact, took a shot at the city's recycling motto, "Recycle or else."
"What is the ‘or else'?" jurors wanted to know.
With Aguirre's ordinance, "or else" could mean being charged with a misdemeanor, but Aguirre said criminal charges would be for only the most egregious offenses, like a commercial entity repeatedly ignoring the law. Other cities in the county (like Chula Vista), and the county itself, mandate recycling but rarely levy fines. Offenders, rather, get friendly warnings when recyclables are found mixed in with regular trash. Aguirre said his ordinance is flexible and includes a provision for tailored recycling plans that take into account circumstances like lack of space at apartment buildings for recycling bins.
"The goal is to get people to comply, not to fine 'em," said Lowenfeld.
Aguirre says people want to recycle-the city just needs to give them the opportunity. Currently, only single-family residences get city-supplied blue recycling bins. Apartment complexes and most condo complexes don't; it's up to residents, or property owners, to supply recycling receptacles. Commercial entities aren't required to recycle, either.
San Diego currently sells its recyclables to Allan Co., a private waste-management firm. Since residents here don't pay for trash collection-the city does-revenue from recycling covers all but roughly $3 million of the costs associated with collecting recyclables. Aguirre argues that more recyclables means more revenue; critics counter that mandatory recycling means the city will have to buy more bins and spend more on enforcement.
Frye had hoped to get a cost analysis from the mayor's office at the July 18 meeting.
"Smart cities recycle because you can make money," Aguirre told CityBeat. "We could double what we're making" with mandatory recycling.
Aguirre said he will try to get a mandatory-recycling ordinance on the June 2008 ballot.