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It Takes A Village To Green A City

Paige Brettingen |
March 9, 2012 | 6:35 p.m. PST

Special Projects Editor

Lois Arkin doesn't like waste.  She doesn't like to hear the word at her eco-village home.

"We don't even have that language at all- anywhere.  Or in any of our documents.  When it comes to thinking about waste in general, one simple direction: Don't make it," said Arkin, 75, in an adamant tone.

Located off Vermont Avenue near the 101 Freeway in Los Angeles, the 40 member eco-village community composts its food scraps, donates used clothing and books to one other and raises organically fed free-range chickens. 

Patches of lettuce and arugula line the walkway and beehives hum hurriedly for a lazy Saturday afternoon as Arkin passes by with a tour group of visiting students.  The pride for her home shows through her energetic gestures as she educates and advocates.  She loves her work, and she has worked hard to establish a strong eco-minded community for nearly 20 years.

Arkin wants others to find what she has-- that living with less waste and less "stuff" has made her life simpler and more enjoyable.  Many of the other eco-village residents have also adapted to a mentality where consumerism is not the norm. 

But Arkin wasn't always this way.  She actually used to be what she calls "the typical American consumer."

"I do come from a background where I did live in a three bedroom-two bath [house with a] two car garage, two cars, two dogs… one husband," she said with a laugh.  "And shop, shop, shop!  I used to love to shop.  But I don't anymore…. When you get to be my age you've accumulated a lot of stuff and it's really time to clean house."

The Zero Waste Plan

Once the "typical" Los Angeles county resident, Arkin used to waste about as much, too.  Based on the L.A. County 2010 Waste Management report, each resident in L.A. County accumulates 10.86 pounds of solid waste each day, a 2.3 percent rise from 2009-- some of the 62,467 tons that go into the Los Angeles County landfills every day and the 19.5 million tons that go in each year.  Before 1989, these numbers became worrisome as the county noticed landfills reaching capacity. 

By 1989, California realized measures needed to be taken to meet the waning capacity of landfills.  The California State Legislature passed Assembly Bill 939: The California Integrated Waste Management Act, making it mandatory to divert recyclable waste from landfills.  By 1995, 25 percent of waste needed to be diverted. By 2005, 50 percent had to be diverted.  Cities that did not comply could be fined up to $10,000 each day.

Los Angeles reached these goals, and in 2006, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa wanted to create more green initiatives.  The mayor and City Council adopted a Renew L.A. Plan which would recover energy and natural resources from waste in L.A., known as "Advanced Thermal Recycling."  In 2007, the city created the Solid Waste Integrated Resources Plan-- a 20-year master plan to make L.A. a "Zero Waste" city by 2025, or as close to zero as possible. 

"There's really no way to get to completely 100 percent recyclable and reused [materials], so zero waste is defined by the state as close to 90 percent as possible, understanding there will always be residual waste, whether it's composting or alternative technology," said Reina Pereira of the L.A. City Bureau of Sanitation department.

Composting is a particularly difficult challenge for the city, simply because the infrastructure isn't there yet.  But the main challenge facing the Zero Waste Plan's success is that 25 percent of landfill waste is food waste, said Andre Villasenor with the Southern California Environmental Protection Agency.

"There are many benefits [with a citywide compost program].  There are environmental benefits, there are the benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions  since landfills contribute a large amount of methane that come from organics.  And in some cases it can reduce cities' tipping fees to landfills because it can be cheaper to compost than pay fees for trash bills," said Villasenor.

One idea: to build six sites composting "wasteshed" sites around Los Angeles to collect residents' food scraps.

"Each local community [would be] managing their own waste and ideally, the plan calls for one composting, one recycling, one alternative technology facility in each wasteshed," said Pereira.

Cost is another factor.  Although the financial part of the Zero Waste Plan will not begin until next week, Pereira said there could be a rise in trash fees.  According to the Zero Waste Plan's 2009 "Policy, Program, and Facility Plan Summary," the average household's $36.32 waste fee could increase up to $3 each month for composting and between $9-18 per month for Advanced Thermal "Waste-to-Energy" Recycling. 

"When we have done our outreach and meeting, who's going to say they're against zero waste?  It's just something everyone gets- for our generation and future generations.  However, there is a cost associated with it… as we get closer to that goal of zero waste, we will have to tackle the harder challenges: the issue of the economics of it and the burden to residents in L.A.," said Pereira.

In Arkin's opinion, a better way to minimize costs would be to impose stricter regulations on the waste generated.  

"It takes a lot longer to create government incentives rather than regulations.  We have been a significant failure not only to regulate but to enforce the regulation," said Arkin.

The city prefers incentives.

"The bureau has typically liked to operate with a carrot approach rather than a stick approach.   It's really educating and making people understand the environmental benefits and the overall benefits of doing the right thing.  However, if certain policies are adopted- like foodscrap recycling- there could be an enforcement to it," said Pereira.

"And it's the case of not only educate, but educate, educate, educate, and keep going on with the messaging so ultimately it will affect behavioral change and kind of shift the way people look at what was what was once considered waste into a resource.  At the end of the day, 90 percent of our waste is recoverable and recyclable," said Pereira. 

With the help of social media, the city hopes to make education about the program more widespread by 2013.

An Individual's Role

In addition to accepting food scraps in the green "yard waste" bins, the city has other goals to meet by its 2013 deadline.  Some of these include:

  • Encouraging manufacturers to produce less packaging with products.
  • More public area recycling bins.
  • Being able to accept more materials in the blue bin recycling bins (such as textiles).
  • "Zero Waste" curriculum for the L.A. Unified School District.
  • The single-use bag ban for L.A.

Already in place for Long Beach, Pasadena, and Santa Monica, the bag ban would require all stores in the city of Los Angeles to replace plastic and paper shopping bags with reusable bags.  The date of the city's bag ban has not yet been determined.  Currently, only 5 percent of the 2.3 billion plastic bags and 21 percent of the 400 million paper bags used in the city are recycled each year, according to the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation.

To accomplish its goals by 2013, the city will rely largely on individuals like Lois Arkin to educate about the benefits of generating less waste.

"Really it's each individual taking the responsibility of doing the right thing and our motto is if you live, work or play in the city of L.A. then you're responsible for either the problem, or the solution," said Pereira. 

The main things Pereira believes individuals can do would be to recycle and participate in the food scrap compost program once the infrastructure is in place.  The city has begun accepting more items in the blue recycling bins each year such as clean Styrofoam and milk and juice cartons.

"It's really everyone making that conscious effort to understand the benefits of recycling and not littering and just taking care of our city and really, ultimately taking care of our earth," said Pereira.

Change Quickly And Deeply

While Arkin is up to the challenge of doing her part for the environment, she is concerned that a 20-year Zero Waste Plan is too long of a timeframe.

"Twenty years ago we thought we could change the direction of the destruction of our life support system on this planet…Now, almost everything we do is too little too late," said Arkin.  "I remain very hopeful that the human species will get it pretty quickly now that we don't have that 20 year window anymore."

And even though Arkin doesn't like the word "waste," she likes the word "zero" that the city has been putting with it.

"I'm excited that the idea of zero waste is being used by public jurisdictions," she said. 

Arkin agrees with Pereira that the city can only do so much and that people must play a crucial role in making the plan a success.  In Arkin's opinion, L.A. residents will have to be more conscious of waste and not treat it as an afterthought.

"We have a culture aimed at more consumption and you have a need that is aimed at less and less…. [Zero waste] is an ideal that is completely unrealistic without working so much more with culture change," said Arkin.

She paused.  It's not like Arkin to talk about something without a clear solution. 
But it doesn't take her long to find one. 

"It's possible-- there are so many different ways people can change very quickly and very deeply-- they fall in love… they hear an inspirational speaker... they get sick-- that inspires change," said Arkin. "Whatever we can do individually, in our families, in our buildings, in our neighborhoods, in our cities, and on up the planet-- change quickly and as deeply as you can."



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