June 27, 2007 - From the June, 07 issue

L.A. Bureau of Sanitation Successfully Managing Mounting Waste Flow

The task of dealing with some of Los Angeles' most unpleasant realities falls to the Bureau of Sanitation. Even while faced with growing amounts of waste, tougher and tougher federal and local environmental regulations, and constant public resistance to necessary projects, the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation engenders a sense of progress, cooperation, and success. In order to better understand this crucial city department's knack for dealing with unpleasant challenges, MIR was pleased to speak with Rita Robinson, director of the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation.


Rita Robinson

In 2004, Los Angeles voters passed Prop O, which generated $500 million to clean up the L.A. basin's water supply. How valuable have the Prop O funds been in bringing L.A. closer to the requirements of the Federal Clean Water Act? And what comes next?

I'm just delighted that the voters had enough trust in us to proceed with passing this measure by a 76 percent vote. I took it as a charge given to the city to provide the voters the improvements that they felt that they were putting their money into. As a result, we've accomplished some great things: a number of multipurpose projects that include $27 million to the city to comply with our trash TMDL milestones for the L.A. River and Ballona Creek watershed and reduction of trash by 30 percent by September 30 of 2007. It also pays for Santa Monica bacteria TMDL low-flow diversion facilities in the amount of $35 million to intercept polluted run-off reaching Santa Monica beaches. That's really important to those two major TMDLs.

In addition to those two major regulatory issues, we also have bond-funded projects totaling $272 million that have benefits for water quality, habitat, open space, and water supply. These projects assisted TMDLs and quality of life by helping L.A.'s urban lakes like Machado Lake and Echo Park Lake, the South Los Angeles Wetlands Park, as well as the Strathern Pit Multi-use Stormwater Quality Treatment project-a very innovative program installing porous pavement and catch screens at the Los Angeles Zoo parking lot-and the L.A. River Revitalization Plan.

We tried to look at innovative projects that approached water quality in a different way and used our urban landscape to provide opportunities for test pilot cases.

Mayor Villaraigosa recently announced the Green L.A. plan, which sets a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 35 percent below 1990 by 2030. What role will the Bureau of Sanitation play in implementing the mayor's proposed Green L.A. plan?

The mayor has spoken in various venues about climate change and the fact that we're going to be the greenest city in America, which is a sentiment also echoed by Mayor Daley and Mayor Bloomberg. I think they're all on the same wavelength-they all read each other's press releases and look at each other's websites. I think it's fantastic. What I love about it is, the mayor looks at 2030 and says, that's really far away, but I want to do some things that we can take credit for and see the results of now. And the Bureau of Sanitation is certainly in line with him with regard to our strategic plan.

One initiative in the mayor's Green L.A. program is to recycle 70 percent of the city's waste by 2015. What steps remain in order for the city and your department to meet that goal?

We're doing that now with regard to waste reduction, reuse, and producer take-back programs. We're partnering with L.A. Shares and other reuse donation entities. We want to try to work with our partners to reuse more and make industry and individuals take some responsibility to recycle more. We're doing more outreach to business and residents; we have an ambassador program that will help reduce our contamination of recyclables by assisting people to capture the right recycling in the right bins in the right places.

What we really need to push, though, is more infrastructure for recycling, composting, and energy recovery. And then education-there's no way we can do this without starting at the grassroots with kids, who will teach parents how to recycle and what to recycle. So on all fronts, from businesses, to private industry, to multifamily housing, we're certainly moving in the direction of 70 percent recycling by 2015.

Will Los Angeles ever experience a future where processed wastewater and storm water are able to replace significantly larger amounts of freshwater now brought into the city from distant places like the Eastern Sierras and the Bay Delta? As a first step, are DWP and the Bureau of Sanitation now working more closely together?

One of the commitments I made when I came into the job was to bring people to the table. One of the things that I've been able to do with the Department of Water and Power is to bridge that gap, and thank goodness for Ron Deaton. We have been able to work with them with regard to treated water from the Tillman plant that we're now using on golf courses out in the Valley. We're looking at purple piping that will help us be able to use more recycled water as we begin to develop more processes. There are ideas and triggers in our Integrated Resources Plan that will begin to use more recycled water in place of potable water. Those relationships with DWP are just seedlings now, but they're going to continue to grow, especially since we are in a drought period. And we're helping DWP to meet its mandates as well as the Bureau of Sanitation to use its resources more effectively. The public looks at us as one entity. It's not us against them; it's all of us together.

The Bureau of Sanitation claims that the Solid Waste Integrated Resource Plan is a "stakeholder-driven process." Who are the stakeholders, and what's their reaction to the plan?

We have 115 key constituents that are participating, from neighborhood leaders, to business leaders, to environmental organizations, to almost every organization with an acronym that you can find: from AQMD from a regulatory standpoint, to the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, to unions. We've completed 42 meetings with the 115 key constituents as of the middle of this month. We're having 36 grassroots meetings in homes with residents in the community where we can talk about these issues of solid waste.

We're beginning our business outreach to 75 businesses throughout the city-large, small, in between, manufacturing, operational-to list their concerns. We're having 36 regional workshops held in the six watersheds throughout the city so that we can get their input. Then we're having three citywide conferences, one of which will be taking place in a couple of weeks. But we will talk to our city leaders and regional leaders to see what their input is, both on the political side and the business side.

So I think that, when you talk about a stakeholder-driven process, we've learned a lot from our Integrated Resources Plan on the wastewater side. We're taking a lot of those lessons learned and applying them to the solid waste side, which is a first, because wastewater always had an environmental following.

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The city has surpassed all goals when it comes to recycling. The one area where recycling rates are low involves plastic containers. What can we do to increase the rate of recycling of these containers? Also, the county has recently studied a ban on Styrofoam, and others are looking at a ban on plastic bags. Does the Bureau of Sanitation's approach to recycling tackle plastics and Styrofoam?

That's a great question that we get asked a lot. The other people we invited include the Department of Water and Power, the Port of Los Angeles, and the county of Los Angeles. What I've done is just say, "Let's sit down and at least talk about where we can work together."

We just met with some of the county public works people regarding Styrofoam. They're considering and studying things. We understand there's a major company in Stockton doing reuse. They've been successful at reusing Styrofoam, using it for crown molding and base molding in homes. What they're telling us is that they're having major competition from China, so it looks like a good time to strike on reuse of Styrofoam and recycling.

On July 1, we plan on launching a major campaign on making plastics, including plastic bags, recyclable. We saw a market for that. We're working with some major companies that are looking at innovative ways of reusing that recycled material. And we're trying to educate the public with a major, million dollar-plus outreach program to tell people about how plastics can be recycled.

It's not that we didn't want to recycle plastics, but we weren't sure if there was a market for it. Now we're ready to launch this. In July, there will be a major press release regarding how all types of plastics can be used, and we'll be adding Styrofoam to that. We want to be able tell people where it ends up. We also want people to understand how its being reused, and where they can actually go out and buy these products and use them in their own homes.

When MIR last interviewed you at the end of 2005, you mentioned that L.A. was launching private programs to generate renewable energy from municipal solid waste at landfill sites. With the mayor's goal of having an alternative technology facility operating by 2010, what work has been done to advance the goals of your pilot programs?

That's true. This mayor has challenged us in many, many ways, and we've been extremely fortunate to have Nancy Sutley, his deputy mayor of environment, working hand in hand with us. She's just been fabulous in helping us see some of these goals through.

One of the key projects that we're looking at is the diversion of the solid waste to renewable energy and green power by 2010. We released an RFP in February of this year from commercial facilities to be able to do 200 to 1,000 tons per day. That RFP is already out on the street, and the responses are due by August of this year. We've had a tremendous amount of interest in the initial RFP briefing. A number of companies are forming partnerships to make sure that they have a viable proposal to bring to the city. We have a consultant, URS, working with us on where we could site such a facility, and they'll have their report done by the end of this year.

All of these pieces are coming together to at least give us the idea of what facility is feasible and what kinds of technologies are out there. Councilmember Greig Smith and the Renew L.A. plan, as the umbrella piece of this, have been working with us closely as a team. We're all working together to try to make this successful.

Lastly, with the ongoing legal battles with Kern County over the disposal of solid waste, and their recent initiative to ban the shipping of sludge to their county, it's all the more important to ask you to comment: Will Los Angeles be a landfill-free city in the future, and what are our plans to get there?

Our goal is to be a landfill-free city in the future. As we look out over our five-year plan, we continue to build in that vein. Some of the short-term things we're looking at: the city still has the legal authority to send bio-solids to Kern County even though there is a real impact on that community, so we're diversifying as much as we can, and looking at other ideas.

We have to do some of this in our yard. One of the things that we were able to do was the Terminal Island Renewable Energy project, T.I.R.E., which is deep well injection of bio-solids to create energy. When Dr. Geraldine Knatz came on board at the port, I sat down with her and I asked her to have her people take a look at it. Her consultants and staff came back and said it was doable. We cut the ribbon on the groundbreaking a few weeks ago with the mayor. The whole world is watching this project. It's a five-year pilot project in partnership with EPA, if you can imagine, to do up to 400 pounds of bio-solids a day. Our long-term management plan continues to look at other directions for bio-solids to go. In addition, our solid waste to energy and recycling projects will assist us in becoming landfill-free.

I really believe that you can't pooh-pooh every idea that comes out. You have to research it, look at the feasibility, test the political waters, speak to the community, and see how much can it stand. But you can't say "no"; you have to say "how." And that's exactly what we've done on every single one of these ideas. I won't accept "no" but I will accept "how," and I'm willing to take the fire as we get there.

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