Q&A: Zero Waste LA

Q&A on Zero Waste LA with Lauren Ahkiam, LAANE (Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy) 

Waste is a major challenge for cities, and Los Angeles is tackling it from environmental, workers rights, and customer satisfaction perspectives through Zero Waste LA - a campaign fought hard by advocacy groups like LAANE. We were interested in how activists created a campaign around a not-so-sexy topic like waste, what is now being implemented, and how Angelenos are involved.

GDT: What was LAANE’s role in the Zero Waste campaign and how did communities get involved?

LA: LAANE looks at what kinds of policy changes can we make and what kinds of work can we do together to benefit workers, the environment, local communities  by tackling key industries locally.  Waste is one of those, obviously, and the City has a powerful role and responsibility to make sure it’s operating sanitation to high standards. Starting in 2009, I had been part of conversations with various communities to determine how this issue involves LA’s communities alongside major organizations who focus on climate change.

We took a particular look at the impacts of workers in neighborhoods, many of whom have been living in communities where there’s a huge concentration of the waste job sector, like in the Northeast Valley, and spent a lot of time speaking to worker health and safety experts. Individual Angelenos became a dedicated part of the coalition because they saw how big of an issue this was and were dedicated to seeing this system transformed.

GDT: What were the issues affecting the former waste system?

LA: When digging into this, we saw that Bureau of Sanitation does a great job with high recycling rates, moving to clean fuel trucks, having high standards for workers. But what we saw on the private side was that it’s a Wild West - there were over a hundred different companies that any one customer might have to negotiate a deal with. There were very little tools to ensure companies were operating according to high standards, and they weren’t meeting the City's environmental goals. We saw that 70% of what was going into landfills came from commercial side, and only 20% of the commercial side of waste was getting recycled. There was a clear disparity.

It also wasn’t working on the customer side. You’d have people paying three times the amount their neighbor is for the same service, businesses stuck in contracts they couldn’t get out of, customers that wanted services like compost collection or food diversion wouldn’t necessarily get those features if neighbors didn’t want it too, or it would be super expensive.

The haulers themselves would criss cross across the city, causing traffic impacts as tons of haulers were serving the same geographical areas, all of them competing on price rather than on standards. Haulers that were committed to an environmental vision with a stable workforce were having a hard time competing with haulers who were just looking to offer as cheap of service as possible.

 Composting, food diversion, and other more sustainable features are coming to everyone in LA as part of the City's Zero Waste LA plan. (image via Wall St Journal)

Composting, food diversion, and other more sustainable features are coming to everyone in LA as part of the City's Zero Waste LA plan.
(image via Wall St Journal)

GDT: What did you see as the solution?

LA: What we found, and eventually convinced the City of, is that the best solution was an exclusive franchise system. It’s a strong tool to substantively address the myriad of impacts that the waste sector makes - from the local community dealing with too many trucks, to the workers having training to be safe on the job, to reducing climate change as waste is third highest contributor to methane emissions in LA County. 

Everyone is impacted by the waste sector one way or another, even though it’s not that sexy and not many of us are waste nerds, but once you start digging into it, you realize how much it touches people.

GDT: How will average Angelenos take part in Zero Waste LA?

LA: The City has designed a comprehensive education program with the haulers that will be disseminated to their customers beginning this July and into 2018. At the end of the day, haulers are contractually obligated to make sure that 1,000,000 tons of waste that used to go in landfills doesn’t anymore. So they have a lot of incentive to do education, get that word out, work with restaurants to divert food, etc. And the City is able to track all of this, which will unleash a lot of data and show where and with whom this is working best.

I think it’ll be a lot easier for individuals once people have the three bins - people will be able to see how much they’re sending to landfill versus recycling versus composting. It’ll make it easier for businesses to see how they can sharpen their ordering by noticing how much is going into the green bin - that’s like money going down the drain and food wasted.

We’ve built a strong connection with groups like the LA Food Policy Council, as 30% of what’s going into landfills right now is organic, which is the big culprit for methane emissions. What we’re trying to figure out with them is what can we all do together to get food out of the landfill, get edible food to people in need, and get stuff no longer edible to be composted or anaerobically digested.

GDT: Bureau of Sanitation has a target of eliminating waste in LA by 2050. Do you think it's really possible?

LA: I do! I think it’ll be hard but I think it’s definitely possible. It might be more like 95%, but I think it’s not only possible, but imperative. There are too many impacts to continue the way things have been. But it’ll take everybody’s involvement to get there.