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City of San Diego contemplates mandatory trash recycling

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The city of San Diego, purportedly under pressure from the state waste management board, continues to press for a mandatory trash recycling ordinance for both construction and demolition debris, as well as office trash.

The city has recently adopted an interim ordinance for construction and demolition materials, with staff given direction to develop a permanent ordinance in the near future. However, currently the city does not have the facilities to accept construction debris that isn't pre-sorted.

"The city's approach is like trying to cross a bridge before it's built," said Craig Benedetto, legislative director for Building Owners & Managers Association (BOMA), San Diego. "Much of the debris created in a multitenant improvement cannot be separated on site and therefore needs to be taken to a facility, usually at a landfill. Since the city does not have such a facility, they should not adopt a mandatory ordinance complete with fines and enforcement until they build a place where the debris can be taken for recycling."

Although most BOMA members already have established recycling programs, a mandatory commercial waste-recycling ordinance is equally impractical, as building owners and managers are unable to control what their tenants throw away, and are not in the position to become "trash police."

BOMA believes that the city could better spend its time on education programs aimed at establishing programs where none exist, and more importantly working to educate tenants on the need to recycle various materials to help prolong the life of our landfills.

The main driver of this issue is AB939, adopted by the state Legislature to require the diversion of 50 percent of the jurisdiction's waste stream. The calculation for the total waste stream was done in 1990. At that time, no one counted the amount of materials being recycled only the total waste stream. That base line has been adjusted by calculation over time. Other jurisdictions recognized that the base line number could be wrong and undertook efforts to update those numbers based upon actual tons of recycling. Those cities, like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chula Vista, found their diversion percentage increase by 10 to 15 percentage points. For San Diego, it is possible that recycling mandates of any kind could be prevented if the city of San Diego has a new baseline study done to demonstrate that all of the voluntary efforts have gotten us past the 50 percent requirement.

"If the city simply took the low percentage increase realized by other cities of 10 percent and added that to their existing diversion rate, they would be well above 50 percent," Benedetto said. "We believe the council should delay any action on mandates until such time as the base line analysis is completed and the city has a true picture of where they stand in relation to the AB939 diversion rate."

The City Council is being pressured to adopt these punitive measures because of staff's contention that fines of upwards of $10,000 per day will be forthcoming from the state waste board if mandatory ordinances are not established. Discussions with waste board personnel in Sacramento have indicated otherwise.

"The bottom line with the waste board is that they want to see progress," Benedetto said. "In speaking with their staff, it's not about the type of program implemented, it's the outcome of the program. That seems to be lost on the well-intended, but ill-conceived proposal to establish these kinds of mandates without funding or the infrastructure to ensure compliance. In the 15 years since AB939 was established, only two jurisdictions have been fined and that was for totally ignoring the waste board and these requirements. The city of San Diego is clearly not in that position."

While BOMA is a proponent of recycling, it opposes the establishment of any sort of commercial, industrial and multifamily mandatory recycling ordinance. BOMA is currently working with the San Diego Chamber of Commerce, the Building Industry Association and the Apartment Association, and has led the Association of Realtors to fight against these potential mandates.

BOMA wants the city to undertake an education partnership to help improve waste stream diversion and help avoid the need for costly enforcement programs that will only drain more dollars from the already empty city coffers.

Muna is chairperson of the BOMA San Diego Government Affairs Committee.

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