Next up for the RecycLA experiment — optimization
Waste Dive checks in with key players from the infamous franchise program to see how they're adapting to commodity markets, organics diversion and a uniquely ambitious facility certification program
Months after calls for cancellation and an onslaught of negative coverage, RecycLA is still standing. With implementation largely complete, the franchise program has entered a new phase that may be even more complex — optimization.
RecycLA's mandated target is to divert 90% of all waste by 2025, with further aims for "zero waste" beyond that. In order to do this, its seven contracted service providers are now focused on improving recycling education amid the market collapse, maximizing food rescue, developing processing infrastructure, and reaching agreement on a unique facility certification program.
Discussions about service and pricing are also still playing out, but on a much smaller scale than often characterized. According to the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation (LASAN), service efficiency for the program's estimated 65,000 accounts is at 99.9%. Missed collections are now down from a peak of 6,158 in Dec. 2017 to 336 last month. The city is also negotiating with service providers around potential changes to a fee structure that has invoked the ire of many customers.
As for the two lawsuits — one against the city, one against five of the seven companies — they continue to make their way through court. Both are still considered serious enough that anyone interviewed for this story who was in a position to comment declined to do so. All of this bears attention, and will get it in due course, but for the vast majority of service providers and customers, the focus now is all about making a program work that could be in place for the next 20 years or more.
The success of these efforts will be key to the viability of environmental claims about RecycLA and similar concepts around the country.
Unlimited recycling in the post-China era
As with any recycling program, the main challenges right now in Los Angeles are participation and contamination.
California law already required many commercial and multi-family residential buildings to recycle, but adoption wasn't widespread. Some are just getting blue bin recycling service for the first time and may not be fully in line with how to use it yet. The fact that this is considered free when bundled with black bin refuse service is seen as a potential selling point to help drive waste reduction, as well as an educational opportunity.
While it's still too early for robust data collection, LASAN reports the RecycLA program has collected 9.6 million cubic yards of material in blue bins to date. The average contamination rate for that material is unknown. Since RecycLA launched last summer, just as China's scrap import policies were announced, the need for cleaner material has only become more urgent. LASAN was cautiously optimistic about this last fall, but now recognizes the situation has gotten more serious.
"We’re not going to get there without the outreach and education," said Dan Meyers, franchise division manager for RecycLA. “That really did not happen during the transition phase. Customers were given outreach material ... This next phase is going to be teaching them how to use the program."
Waste Management, which services two of RecycLA's 11 zones, reports seeing recycling volume nearly double since the program started. Though Doug Corcoran, director of public services, said much of this material is "highly contaminated." While Waste Management has moved to raise recycling prices around the country to reflect this reality, the RecycLA contract terms leave little room aside from a contamination charge. So far, the company hasn't exercised it.
"Frankly it was such a bumpy start we didn't want to then pile on with contamination charges and just sort of ruin the spirit of the whole thing. So we absorbed those," said Corcoran. "We may continue to absorb that."
Ware Disposal, which services one zone, said only about 3% of its customers were recycling at the outset. The company has also held off on charging any contamination fees, though it will start charging for additional black bin service if customers repeatedly disregard separation requirements and aren't receptive to education.
Universal Waste Systems (UWS), which services one larger zone, has similarly encountered many customers that wanted recycling before and couldn't get it. There are also plenty that haven't welcomed a higher cost of service, so the company's sustainability manager says on-site interactions that can identify reduction opportunities are key.
"It’s showing the customers how they can ultimately save money, that’s what we’ve found is the best," said Sean Finn. “If you’re putting more materials in the blue bin that could potentially lead to your trash savings as a whole."
A small army of "zero waste" specialists from each company is expected to conduct annual waste assessments and interact with customers as often as possible throughout the year. UWS will also be opening its own MRF in 2019, which is expected to help align guidance on acceptable contamination standards.
Some of the smaller companies don't currently have their own MRFs and may be taking material to multiple sites with different guidelines. Technically, all RecycLA service providers must offer everything on LASAN's residential list — a long one, which includes film plastics and polystyrene foam products — but that doesn't mean every MRF will take it.
Judi Gregory, "zero waste" project manager for NASA Services, said this has been a particular challenge in the downtown zone where her company operates, because the area has multiple manufacturing and retail customers that generate a diverse range of plastics.
"A lot of those materials were not even recyclable a year ago. They’re definitely not recyclable today. And so the disconnect is that our facilities are saying 'we don’t want this material,' but we’re required to still collect them in the blue bin," she said.
There has been talk of modifying this list among service providers, processors and the city, though nothing has been decided yet. As this discussion plays out around the country, it's especially relevant for RecycLA.
"That changes everything, because you build your program and your cost infrastructure around certain marketable materials and certain cost points," said Gregory, who estimated that the cost of recycling is now often higher than disposal. "You can absorb that for a while, but there’s a point to which you don’t want to keep doing that."
Food recovery key to organics diversion
Another component of RecycLA which will be equally important to achieving its environmental targets, if not more so, is organics diversion. So far, LASAN reports that an estimated 1,200 tons of food waste have been recovered for rescue or otherwise diverted from landfills.
Certain commercial generators are already required to be diverting their organics under state law AB 1826, and that trend is expected to continue with greater enforcement under newer law SB 1383, but Meyers described adoption as "very limited" so far." Since blue bin service is requiring so much attention, LASAN now doesn't plan on pushing the green bin add-on until later in 2019 once more processing infrastructure comes online.
"To try to roll those both out and get that message pushed all at once, I just don’t think we’ll be able to succeed as well," he said.
Corcoran said Waste Management offers the service as required, but also won't be emphasizing it until 2019 and beyond. In the meantime, the company has invested in multiple projects to expand processing capacity like others. Finn reports that UWS currently has a full organics route operating, with cart-washing capabilities to entice customers, and plans to add another truck next year. Though his company is also taking a wait-and-see approach on this area and emphasizing upstream food rescue solutions wherever possible. Ware is encouraging customers to start with a 96-gallon cart and see how they like it from there. Otherwise, food recovery is still seen as the priority.
"We’ve approached it from the get-go more from a food recovery standpoint, which has been very successful," said Ware's recycling coordinator Nicole Seyle. "Because the food recovery option is a free service for the customer they’re very onboard to have that happen."
NASA has multiple large produce markets or commercial generators in its zone and is pushing recovery as well. Customers have proven more resistant to the concept of source-separating organics, especially if it requires de-packaging food, so green bin service is less of a priority for some.
Given this focus on food recovery, multiple service providers agreed that updated guidance from local and county government officials would be helpful to reassure any customers concerned about donation liability. City and county officials confirmed to Waste Dive that some type of letter, written in conjunction with health officials, is forthcoming.
Even without participation from every large generator, RecycLA has already yielded significant results when it comes to food recovery. The unique model of requiring service providers to help finance local nonprofit organizations has expanded required infrastructure, as demonstrated by companies such as Republic Services, and begun making a difference for local residents. Recent examples include the St. Francis Center opening new satellite food pantries at the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles Trade Technical College.
Facility certification – the next debate
On top of all this, RecycLA still has one more key component local officials say must be locked into place to verify the program's environmental progress and fulfill its promises. LASAN has proposed a facility certification plan, pending approval from the Board of Public Works (BPW), that may be the most stringent of its kind in the state – if not the country.
It would require any site accepting material from RecycLA service providers to meet certain standards around physical infrastructure, recycling rates and safety in order to continue receiving that business. LASAN inspectors would have the right to come in regularly to assess compliance, in addition to the usual inspections from other state or local agencies.
"We plan on at minimum inspecting every single facility every single month," said Meyers. "Other agencies are called in when there’s a problem. By us being out there on a regular basis at these facilities it truly allows us to stay on top of what is going on at the facility. It also allows us to work collaboratively with some of the other regulatory agencies."
One of the more controversial pieces of this is a requirement that any facility handling solid or organic waste must be fully enclosed, including negative air pressure on all entries to reduce odor. LASAN has recognized this may entail "significant improvements and new construction" in multiple cases. Some companies feel it's too much of an ask, especially for facilities that aren't in residential areas, and say it goes beyond what the city outlined in the original contract terms.
"We feel that we have a lot of talking to do with the city about that program before it’s fully baked and ready to go," said Waste Management's Corcoran. "If they’re not careful they’re going to make it so restrictive that they will limit the outlets that are willing to take the material, just when the amount of material that needs to be processed is increasing because the rest of the program is working."
Others disagree and say relief is long overdue for residents living near such facilities in environmental justice communities. This point was reiterated during a September BPW meeting when multiple residents from the Pacoima area — home to a high concentration of facilities — came to express urgency for approving this plan.
"There are impacts that disproportionately hit working class communities of color," said Rob Nothoff, director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy's waste and recycling campaigns. "Part of the overall goal and vision that was outlined from day one, that everybody was crystal clear on, was that we were going to find ways to mitigate the impacts that these facilities are having on the surrounded communities."
Questions have also been raised about whether reporting requirements for recycling rates may be redundant, but Meyers said the goal is for LASAN's biannual waste audits to serve as a tool for service providers by providing "an extremely detailed look that gets down to the commodity level." For example, if a particular processing facility has higher residue rates than others then service providers could reevaluate whether technological capabilities or generator behavior were factors.
Another consideration, raised by NASA's Gregory, is what this might mean for smaller specialty processors. For example, it's unclear whether pig farmers accepting recovered food or outlets for creative textile reuse would need to get certified too. NASA's zone includes the city's fashion district, with a high volume of textile waste.
All of these questions, and others, have made the facility certification a more complicated process. Originally presented to the BPW for approval in March, it has been held over multiple times. Meyers said the city is willing to be patient as facility is considered a "cornerstone" of the RecycLA program.
Embracing the paradigm shift
Operating any recycling program, especially under California state laws, is already a heavy lift for many service providers. Doing what RecycLA has outlined makes for an even more challenging environment. Though it's one that officials are quick to remind companies they signed up for and maintain will be worthwhile for the city's long-term future.
"We’ve gone from very little to regulation to a highly regulated system, but the thing that they got were these very valuable exclusive contracts that have 10 years in them with the possibility of us to renew for an additional five and five," said BPW Commissioner Heather Repenning. "So in exchange for that we’ve asked for a lot and I think we needed to ask for a lot."
Repenning points to the fact that 500 clean fuel trucks are now out on the road as a sign that RecycLA is already achieving its environmental goals and, despite the transition issues, she says it can still be a model for sustainable urban planning going forward. This will be especially pertinent in the coming years as neighboring cities Glendale and Long Beach are currently at different stages of pursuing their own franchise plans.
"It’s important for cities to look at being able to take something of this magnitude on, but also to be willing to adapt and make changes as you see are needed," said Repenning. "It’s not like we rolled out the program on Day one and it’s going to remain the same for the 10-year duration."
In the meantime, New York is set to release its own franchise plan imminently and RecycLA can be expected to continue serving as a foil for proponents and critics alike. Meyers said some amount of initial confusion among both customers and service providers should be expected for any city looking to make the move, but perseverance is required.
"There is a change that comes with it and along with that is going to come some growing pains," he said. "We experienced more than our fair share of that, but the program will pay off."
From the service providers' perspective, it's clear that the question of blue bin recycling costs is among the most pressing issues given mandated diversion targets in their contracts. Meyers said it's too soon to know whether markets will hinder their ability to hit those marks and the city is watching closely. The Los Angeles City Council's environment committee, which was the center of attention during a six-plus hour hearing in February, has requested more information on this and is expected to hold another hearing in November. The BPW has also requested its own quarterly hearings moving forward.
As this all plays out, with a variety of demands weighing on them everyday, the service providers that Waste Dive spoke with are doing their best to remain positive and embrace the change. They would prefer to see the narrative shift away from transition issues to the more detailed work of engaging with customers.
"The service issues are largely behind us," said Waste Management's Corcoran.“We just had to get the trucks and the drivers and the bins on the street. Once you have the resources in place, it’s almost like magic."
"Yes it has been a big change, but the change was necessary," said Ware's Seyle. "The city has really high goals, which are admirable, and it’s going to take all of us – whether it’s a tenant of an apartment or the owner or worker of a company."
While those aims may get lost amid service or billing issues, and be considered too esoteric for some, there is still an optimistic sense that they'll weigh out in the end.
"We have to have a reasonable culture of disposal here in the U.S. and just throwing it in the ground isn’t sustainable," said Finn."We’re only human. There’s always gonna be missed pickups, people are always going to complain about the rates, but ultimately the greater good is about the environment."
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