Environment & Science

Private trash haulers, LA fight over commercial waste hauling rules

Track your trash from start to finish around LA.
Track your trash from start to finish around LA.
Mae Ryan/KPCC

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In Los Angeles, city trucks pick up blue, black, and green bins of trash outside houses and apartments. But it’s private waste haulers who serve everyone else — 100,000 businesses including malls, hotels, and high-rises.

L.A. wants to boost recycling, so public works officials are boosting an overhaul for this commercial waste.

Office buildings, coffee shops, the flower mart, jewelry mart: All kinds of industries toss stuff out in the nation’s second largest city. Picking it up is nowhere near as orderly as picking up bins on residential streets. 

“It’s not a one-fit-all city,” says Mark Blackburn, standing in a busy truckyard as the sun rises. “Sometimes I just don’t think people realize how huge that is. Huge.”

Blackburn runs Universal Waste Systems. He says it’s not just that L.A. sprawls. Dumpsters fill up differently at different businesses.

“You go to a produce market downtown, you pick up a bin that weighs a ton,” he says. That’s all green waste, compostable, or usable as an energy source. “Then you go next door and you pick up a high rise and you’re recycling and you pickup very little waste out of that.

Paper waste and aluminum cans are mostly recyclable for value. Coffee houses toss grounds that if mixed in with recyclables, lower the value of a load. The growth of scrap markets means businesses and their waste haulers monitor this more closely.

Blackburn’s dad founded UWS in 1963. His three sons and three nephews work there now. He says recycling rules have complicated trash in the four decades his family’s worked in L.A. One restaurant south of downtown gets three visits a day.

“You go to a restaurant, you pick up the food waste in one truck, and then you have to send a trash truck there to pick up the residual, whatever’s left over,” he says. Still, Blackburn says his way is better than a plan by the Los Angeles Bureau of Public Works to rethink how the city manages commercial waste. Public works officials sent forward their plan in February.

“We’re doing this for zero waste,” says Alex Helou, with the Los Angeles Sanitation Department. With the Los Angeles Solid Waste Integrated Resources Plan, L.A. is aiming to stop landfilling its trash entirely. So, companies that now operate under a permit — a kind of registration — would instead compete to serve regions of the city under exclusive franchise.

Helou says the new agreements would cut diesel truck pollution and encourage recycling.

“We can set our environmental agenda to meet clean fuel, increase diversion, and increase recycling in the city. The two are interlocked together, the diversion rate, the environmental agenda are interlocked with the franchise system,” Helou says.

The L.A. Board of Public Works has used the city of San Jose as a possible model. There, one company now holds the franchise for all commercial waste, says Jeff Anderson with the city of San Jose’s Department of Environmental Services. That company, Republic Services, would pay a price, in the form of liquidated damages, for failing to meet environmental goals. 

“Probably the single most important performance standard was our waste diversion requirement, that Republic must meet a minimum waste diversion target of 75 percent in the first year, 80 percent in subsequent years,” Anderson says.

San Jose is smaller, with more offices and less industry than Los Angeles. But L.A. Sanitation’s Karen Coca says the cities share a need for industry to help meet public mandates. 

“It certainly for us would be so much easier if we did have a contractual agreement with the haulers. So that when they service their customers, they’re giving them all of these recycling programs. Which right now they don’t,” Coca said.

In fact, a report from the Bureau of Sanitation argues that its way is the best way.

“An exclusive franchise system allows for the most aggressive diversion goal to effectively meet the state mandates and City Zero Waste diversion goals,” it says.

Mark Blackburn of Universal Waste Systems disputes that. He claims that “this would be the biggest transition in the history of this country.” New York, while larger, operates under a licensing system more similar to what L.A. does now.

Besides, says Blackburn, competition’s already providing what the city says it wants. “With a free market and a non-exclusive system, each customer has a right to negotiate the best rate and the best program you have,” he says.

That’s the backbone argument mounted by opponents to the city plan, including the Chamber of Commerce, building owners and the Los Angeles County Disposal Association. They've formed Angelenos for a Clean Environment.

The disposal association’s Ron Saldana says the city’s plan isn’t just about green goals.

“To some degree, just my opinion, they’re looking for control in other areas,” Saldana says. “You can kind of come to your own conclusion. Most of the folks in the city of Los Angeles that support exclusive are labor unions.”

Saldana’s talking about a coalition lining up to support the city’s plan: Don’t Waste L.A. It includes environmental groups, the L.A. County Federation of Labor, and the Teamsters. Both sides have provided hours of testimony at preliminary hearings in recent months.

They’re gearing up for a higher profile fight at L.A.’s city council, where the big vote on commercial waste hauling will come up later this spring.