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Editorial: Whatever happened to LA's plan to end its reliance on landfills?

Los Angeles Times Editorial Board, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Science & Technology News

The smoldering, stinking mess at the Chiquita Canyon Landfill in Castaic is a glaring example of the environmental and public health hazards created by burying our trash — and how state and local leaders have allowed this problem to pile up.

As county and state leaders consider what to do with the dump, they have to contend with another problem: If they close Chiquita Canyon, the trash will just be trucked to another landfill in the region, shifting the emissions and environmental impact to another community. That’s because Southern California, like most of the state, is still far too dependent on this primitive method of handling waste.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Nearly two decades ago, the city of Los Angeles adopted a visionary plan to divert 90% of the city’s trash from landfills by 2025 by recycling, composting food waste and developing new facilities that could turn trash into energy. That goal is still on the books, but the city stopped calculating its diversion rate after the state switched to per capita disposal rates instead. Still, it’s clear the city isn’t close to 90%; Los Angeles residents and businesses sent about 4 million tons of waste to landfills in 2022, according data from CalRecycle. For comparison, the city disposed of 3.7 million tons in 2004.

Los Angeles County set a goal to divert 80% of its waste from landfills by 2025. Today, the county diverts about 66% from landfills, but still sends 11 million tons to dumps each year.

What happened?

 

First, city and county officials didn’t predict the boom in waste production, particularly single-use plastic. Residents and businesses generated much more garbage than experts projected — and not just in Los Angeles. California and the U.S. have been landfilling more too. California’s recycling rate was 41% in 2022, down from 50% a decade earlier.

Experts blame the growth in e-commerce, which has greatly increased the amount of shipping materials in the waste stream, and the rise of plastic packaging, fast fashion and disposable and lower-quality goods on the market. Most of the bubble wrap, air pillows and plastic wrappers that arrive at your door end up in a landfill. Plastic takeout containers and small electronics and appliances, such as toasters or DVD players, are typically tossed rather than repaired or reused, and often can’t be recycled.

The collapse of the global market for recycled materials didn’t help. China, which had been the world’s biggest buyer of scrap plastic, banned most plastic and paper imports in 2017, and other countries have restricted imports. Since then recycling centers in the U.S. have struggled to find places that will take, much less reuse, the plastics that people throw in the blue bin. In some cases, recycling centers are just sending their plastic to landfills.

And that’s another problem.

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