December 20, 2007 - From the Nov./Dec., 2007 issue

Exit Interview: Rita Robinson, L.A. City Bureau of Sanitation

While the timing of Rita Robinson's jump from managing the L.A. Bureau of Sanitation to the L.A. Department of Transportation may have been a surprise, it was no surprise that Mayor Villaraigosa would select Ms. Robinson to head a department that handles one of the most politically sensitive and challenging services in the region. Soon after her position change, Rita Robinson spoke with TPR for the first installment of a two-part feature, in which she details the numerous accomplishments of Sanitation under her leadership and the challenges that remain to be tackled by her successor.


Rita Robinson

What shape was the Bureau of Sanitation in when Mayor Villaraigosa asked you to lead LA DOT? How challenging will it be for your successor to meet expectations?

The great thing about where Sanitation is now is that Enrique Zaldivar, who will be taking over, and I were joined at the hip from the very beginning. We came in with Sunshine Canyon attached to us like a ball and chain. Not only did we get a chance to get the ball and chain taken off, but now they are just moving us to the stratosphere of all the great things that can take place when we work together.

Enrique sat at that table and took that heat along with me. He and the staff were the ones that provided the technical information that helped us to inform the City Council and Councilmember Smith of some of the things that we really wanted to change. We embraced Renew L.A. We didn't fight. And out of that came the Solid Waste Integrated Resource Plan (SWIRP). Enrique was really the one who came up with the SWIRP idea-the idea to use his wastewater experience and bring that into the solid waste side.

By raising expectations, we made the department better. The patient was dead on arrival and is now revived. It has come back from the dead. Councilmember Smith, the City Council, and the mayor have been so pleased. Enrique will carry that into the future.

What were the goals of the Bureau of Sanitation while you were there? What goals did you accomplish, and what is left for your successor, Enrique Zaldivar, to finish?

Other than dealing with the closure of Sunshine Canyon, we create 3,600 tons of waste a day. So we've always had the purpose of increasing our recycling. That meant not only household recycling, but also multi-families. Councilmember Smith and, especially, Councilmember Rosendahl, challenged us to increase our plan to get all multi-families recycling by 2010. We have more and more multi-families recycling, and we have increased our commitment to recycling household waste with the Ambassador Program.

On the water side, our Terminal Island Renewable Energy Project (TIRE), has taken off. That's a joint project with the U.S. EPA, the Port of Los Angeles, the Bureau of Sanitation, and a private firm to pump our biosolids into a 5,500-foot deep well and create renewable energy from that project. We're already seeing that project move. So far, we're meeting all the expectations we had. There is worldwide interest in this project.

The Waste to Energy Request for Proposal project is moving ahead. We met with Councilmember Smith and discussed the overall plan to take our solid waste and use it as a resource, looking at ways that other countries do this. In fact, Councilmember Smith and our staff went across the world to Germany and some other countries to look at ways that waste energy is being used, whether it's using paralysis, gasification, or thermal recycling-those are three different ways of taking our waste, putting it in small plants in our communities, and making energy from those processes.

We had 12 "proposers" for using solid waste in this way. I think we're down to about eight or nine. They're reviewing those proposals now, and in a few weeks, I think we'll be coming up with some ideas of what proposals should be in the final run, working very closely with Councilmember Smith and his staff. So we have a diverse review panel, from academia and science-there are nine people on the panel that is reviewing those proposals. They're from all over the world, and it's exciting that L.A. is at the forefront of looking at "waste to energy."

I know that there's a lot of skepticism about this technology. However, we feel that if we can address the concerns of the communities-and both Councilmember LaBonge and Councilmember Smith have offered up opportunities in their communities-and we can make it safe and reliable, it's something that can work.

We have to look at other ways. We can't keep depending on the landfills. Even Sunshine Canyon, which is one of the larger landfills, will, in the next two years, exceed capacity. L.A. County, as they closed their major facility, had to go with rail haul. That's still another landfill. We were looking for ways that will not build another landfill. Waste energy is one of those ways.

The public knows very little about this part of the city's functions and duties. How do you build a constituency between the councilmembers and the mayor to support the kinds of budgets, investments, and transitions that are needed to implement these projects when most of the public doesn't appreciate what happens with waste and sanitation?

One thing we've been able to do is to open the eyes of people. Councilmember Smith, by pushing this in the transition between Mayor Hahn and Mayor Villaraigosa, was able to open the door to this Pandora's box and demystify it. People weren't aware that the city generates 3,600 tons of trash a day. Opening the eyes of people led to the understanding that waste is a resource and then Sanitation was able to say, "Yes, we have it, it's a resource, we can recycle more."

Just in July we announced that plastics 1-7 are now available for recycling; plastic bags can be recycled; plastic or wire hangers are available. This is a major portion of our direction. The public is focused on it now They know what we're doing with it. Not to mention that the Solid Waste Integrated Resource Plan is doing phenomenally and is getting people engaged in what we do with our trash and how we can help ourselves.

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I think the message is already out there. We published the strategic plan and the "Year at a Glance," which shows what the Bureau is doing. I think they know, and I think they're now trying to find out ways, especially with multi-families getting involved, of what they can do for themselves.

The mayor recently spoke at the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Seattle, talking about sustainability and the reduction of carbon. This month's TPR includes the transcript of the speech he delivered there. How does L.A. measure itself against other cities in terms of its citywide green efforts? The city started recycling in Mayor Bradley's years. Where are we now compared to the other major cities in the country?

We're still ahead of most of the major cities, but we have to be honest about the efforts of other cities. New York was at 15 percent recycling; they're much closer to 45 or 50 percent now. They're really working hard to catch up with us. Our goal, of course, is to get to 70 percent by 2010, so we're really pushing ourselves hard.

It's not going to be easy because we've taken all the low-hanging fruit first. Now we really have to get to the inside of people and make sure that our Ambassador Program is going out, looking at people's bins and saying, "Look at what you have in your black bin that could have been in the blue bin." My staff always says they hate when I say this, but put your black bin on a diet and put it in the blue bin. They hate when I say that, but it really plays well, because people realize that they need to streamline that black bin.

One of the major things we did was we made people own the fact that they have trash. For a long time, the city of L.A. did not charge for the operation of trash collection and disposal. They contributed to the maintenance of the vehicles and those things, so we had a charge for that. Most of the country pays for trash hauling and disposal. We didn't charge. In the last two years, we were able to get the major trash fee through. People see the need for that service; they want to pay their fair share for that service; they want to see results from it. So we put a lot of that money into recycling, into programs where people see the results of the money that they spend.

I think the connection of police with the trash fee was just a way to say that the "fee for service" relieved the general fund so that it now has that money to contribute to providing for more police officers.

When MIR last interviewed you in June of this year, you mentioned that the Bureau of Sanitation had released an RFP in February for commercial facilities able to convert 200 to 1,000 tons of solid waste to renewable energy and green power per day by 2010. That RFP was due by August of this year; what alternative energy technologies do you hope to see come out of the implementation of this waste to energy technology?

Any of the three would work for us, whether it's paralysis or gasification—which is just oxygen or no oxygen, and both processes provide a good fuel source—or thermal energy, all three are a workable process. We may also end up with a hybrid process. Throughout the country, there are a number of these different operations going on right now.

Waste to energy is still a little new for people. The bad word of "incineration" is still lurking in the back of people's minds, the old LANCER project is still lurking in people's minds, and it's certainly not the kind of process we want to go into in the future. We certainly don't want to impose anything on a community without their input. We certainly don't want to scare people. We want to do something that makes some environmental sense and will help us for our own future. That's exactly what SWIRP is working on-telling people all the possibilities of how we can reduce our waste. Waste to energy is just one of the many ways, and recycling is one of the many ways that we can accomplish our goals.

See the January issue of The Planning Report for the rest of this interview, in which Rita Robinson describes her new role as general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Transportation.

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