Why “Zero Waste” in Pasadena Is Increasingly Harder to Achieve

Published : Saturday, August 3, 2019 | 5:18 AM

A garbage truck unloads at School Canyon Landfill in the San Rafael Hills, just west of Pasadena.

Pasadena is committed to achieving the goal of Zero Waste to area landfills by 2040. Reality, however, seems to be burying the goal — in spite of more green regulations and Internet-fueled drop in newspapers and printed matter — under massive mounds of Amazon boxes and dine-at-home cartons as lifestyles evolve.

Pasadena’s opportunity to achieve Zero Waste may be slipping away.

The City’s Department of Public Works reported July 23 that Pasadenans are disposing of almost twice the amount of waste they were in 2012.

The update showed each resident throwing away an average of 5.6 pounds of garbage per day in 2012, but 8.4 pounds per day in 2018.

Chart courtesy of City of Pasadena

The trend goes beyond City limits. Landfill waste per person is rising in Los Angeles County, too, according to Coby Skye, assistant deputy director, environmental programs, Los Angeles County Public Works.

For Los Angeles County, Skye said, the trend became evident in the last two years.

In 2016, the county rate was 3.5 pounds per person per day. In 2017, that jumped to 4.5 pounds per day, per capita. In 2018, the number ticked up again to 4.7 pounds per person per day.

Pasadena Public Works’ report to the Municipal Service Committee found that economic growth over the last six years has resulted in increased consumption, real estate development, and waste generation.

Again, Skye’s analysis mirrors that of the City.

“The economy is doing well,” he said, “and we’ve seen throughout the last several decades that the economy is directly related to waste generation. People buy more stuff, they eat out more and all of that is a factor in the amount of waste that we generate.”

The per capita waste numbers are driven upward by changes in the recycling industry as well.

The report from Pasadena Public Works noted that the exportation of waste was an important element in U.S. recycling strategies, but China, Malaysia and Vietnam, the place our waste is “recycled” to, are starting to damn up that stream.

Yet again, Skye’s experience matches up with that of Pasadena.

“One big issue is that, in the last few years, there have been additional restrictions on recyclables that previously were exported to China and that’s been affecting the recycling market,” he observed.

There was, Skye noted, an earlier policy called Green Fence dating to 2014. The most recent in a series of successive waves of such measures, the “China National Sword” policy has been the most significant.

The net result is that, although people are depositing items in recycling bins –  mixed paper and mixed plastics in particular — that used to be sent to China, they are no longer accepted.

“And because those mixed materials don’t have a high value anywhere else,” he explained, “they’re ending up in landfills or other disposal facilities. So we know that China National Sword is definitely a factor in our county.”

All of which points to an overreliance on Asia as final resting place for our recycled refuse.

“We really need to develop more infrastructure in California and in the United States to recover materials, and also to do something with the residual waste that’s left over, other than landfilling it,” said Skye.

Another contributing factor is the explosion of delivery services, such as Amazon and Uber Eats, which is depositing a lot more packaging into the disposal stream.

“Cardboard, luckily, is very recyclable,” said Skye, “but there’s a lot of other plastics of different types that are affecting recycling rates as well.”

He observed that, if three items are ordered from Amazon, those three items will come in three different boxes.

“And each box is 10-times bigger than the item that’s inside, with a whole lot of little peanuts or blister packaging,” said Skye. “It does create a challenge for us on the back end trying to reduce the amount of waste going into landfills.”

The problem, he said, can be addressed through good policy.

“If there are state laws and regulations that require all product manufacturers to meet certain environmental standards, and create a level playing field, that to me is a much better approach,” Skye stated.

To that point, the City’s Public Works report expressed support for two pieces of legislation, SB 54 and AB 1080, together entitled the California Circular Economy and Plastic Reduction Act.

The proposal would “require the state to adopt regulations that require producers and retailers to source reduce single-use packaging and establish priority single-use plastic products and recycling goals for these materials.”

“If Amazon were to switch their packaging,” said Skye, the impact would on Zero Waste goals would be felt overnight.