In September 2016, the City of Los Angeles Board of Public Works (BPW) approved a $3.5 billion waste hauling contract to create 11 franchise zones to be serviced by waste haulers in Los Angeles. In December, the LA City Council approved the >program, which focuses on increasing standards to reduce landfill disposal by 1 million tons per year by 2025 and develop franchise hauler accountability for program outcomes and customer satisfaction implemented by LA Department of Sanitation. Heather Repenning, Vice President of the Board of Public Works, joined VX News to discuss the impact of the franchise agreement and the move towards utilizing clean trash hauling vehicles.
VX News: As Vice President of the Board of Public Works for the City of Los Angeles, elaborate on the significance of the LA City Council’s decision in December to overhaul its waste-hauling franchise agreement—specifically, in terms of the city’s goals to reduce air pollution and clean up the waste stream.
Heather Repenning: Switching over to a franchise system will create unparalleled and positive environmental benefits for our city. I’m not sure that any city in the US has found a more impactful way to increase recycling.
This will take Los Angeles from having what was essentially a partial recycling program to a complete and comprehensive recycling system by expanding services to all commercial and multifamily residential properties in the city, which are currently serviced by private haulers. The significance of this transition will be far-reaching—starting with the fact that many of the private haulers do not currently provide any level of recycling for their customers.
Under the franchise system, the city was able to negotiate and secure agreements from the selected haulers to abide by very specific diversion rates. Haulers will now have to measure how much material they’re sending to the landfills, and in order to meet the established diversion goals, they will have to recycle not only solid materials, but also food waste and yard trimmings.
VX News: Address the city’s immediate sustainability targets for implementation of the new franchising agreement. What can we expect to achieve in terms of landfill diversion, waste and recycling rates, greenhouse gas emissions, and reducing food waste?
Heather Repenning: The most important target is recycling. We have an internal goal of reaching a 90-percent diversion rate by 2025. Our current diversion rate is 76 percent. Ultimately, about one million tons of trash will be diverted from landfills annually as a result of this program, which is substantial.
The program will have a major impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and improving air quality in our city. We will accomplish this by requiring the selected haulers to replace diesel vehicles with new clean-fuel trucks. And with only one hauler serving each part of our city, there will be fewer trucks in our neighborhoods overall. These two factors combined will have an impact on air quality equivalent to taking 517,000 vehicles off the road.
While not directly linked to air quality, another important goal for the program is establishing a baseline for customer service and accountability. Today, in an unregulated market, there is no standard or uniformity for customer service for commercial and multi-family properties. Moving forward, the city will set and monitor customer service expectations for each of the haulers, and at the end of the day, customers can hold the city accountable for ensuring that trash is being collected and that all routes are being serviced.
One of the most important aspects of this program will be equitable and transparent pricing in all of our neighborhoods. Under the new system, there will be just one rate for all customers in LA going forward. The final benefit is the establishment of a baseline for worker safety. Driving these large vehicles, and handling and sorting waste, is highly physical and often dangerous work. With this new program, we are going to certify all of the facilities to ensure safe working conditions.
City customers (single family residences and multi-family buildings with four or less units) will continue to be serviced through LA Sanitation, just like now. But this new system will help lead Los Angeles to our goal of keeping 90% of our waste out of landfills by 2025.
VX News: Changing rules like this always has a ripple effect among incumbent operators. Some existing haulers have asserted that imposing a regulated, district-based system on what was previously a free-market system will prove quite difficult for a city like LA to manage. How does your department intend to approach the challenges of management and compliance?
Heather Repenning: A rigorous program will be put in place to ensure compliance, with a number of new staff being added for inspection purposes. The city will closely monitor and review, and will encourage input and participation from the customers to ensure that the goals are being met. As you can imagine, the selection process was highly competitive. Our partners in the program have a vested interest in succeeding and delivering on their commitments to the city of Los Angeles. The system also calls for all garbage trucks to be clean fuel vehicles. Fewer trucks, and cleaner trucks is good for everyone in Los Angeles.
VX News: Even if the franchise program successfully reduces landfill disposal by 1 million tons per year by 2025, some waste will still end up in landfills. What is the capacity of the city’s existing landfills to handle the waste stream that will continue to disposed rather than recycled?
Heather Repenning: The landfills that are in close proximity to the city are nearing capacity. The residents who live near those sites are always looking for opportunities to reduce or end operations at those facilities. We’ve seen this, for example, up in Sunshine Canyon. The most significant aspect of this program is that we will be a lot less dependent on landfills. That said, we are going to need to add infrastructure to handle recycling of both solids and organic materials. Organics recycling is a new field. They’re doing a lot of it up north; we’re doing it at the pilot level here in LA. Obviously, we have green bins that handle yard waste. But dealing with food waste is going to be a new area for us, in both the new franchise program and our regular city programs. It’s an exciting new frontier for us and I think there’s a lot of opportunity for innovation in this area.
VX News: The new program is an outgrowth of LA’s Solid Waste Integrated Resource Plan, which includes a citywide goal of achieving zero waste by 2050, and is part of the mayor’s Sustainability pLAn. Place the program in context with these larger policy goals?
Heather Repenning: I feel very fortunate to be working in the context of the mayor’s Sustainability pLAn, where the goals and mandates are laid out so clearly. The plan creates a pathway by which we can reach energy efficiency, waste and water-use reduction, and a brighter environmental future. With a focus on current and future climate change impacts on our neighborhoods, the franchise program will divert waste going to landfills by emphasizing, encouraging, and facilitating recycling. By establishing zones served exclusively by single haulers, we will alleviate truck traffic and air pollution, and improve the conditions of our streets.
Also, the public-private partnerships underpinning the franchise program are exemplary of the mayor’s call for collaboration in seeking solutions and cutting across bureaucratic boundaries to improve our city and neighborhoods. Additionally, under this new system, every resident and business in Los Angeles will now have the opportunity to utilize recycling bins. Previously, many people in apartment buildings and businesses didn’t have recycling options, but they all will going forward.
VX News: Heather, you will be participating on a panel at the upcoming VerdeXchange Conference to discuss ways Los Angeles can reach zero waste. What are the policy issues and unanswered questions that require additional attention before Los Angels can achieve this goal?
Heather Repenning: At the end of the day, we need to look at markets, and we need to see what is normally thought of as waste as “solid resources,” as we now call it in Sanitation.
It took a while working here before I really understood what that meant. It means that we look at everything that we used to just throw away as something that can be reused, or as something that we can get some kind of beneficial product out of. Rather than disposing of something, rather than sending it to the landfill, what else can it become? What else can we get out of it?
It’s important to think very broadly about what those products can be. In some places, they’re incinerating trash to generate energy. It’s a way to avoid landfilling and actually get a useful product. In terms of organics, there are a lot of nonprofits doing food recovery and collaboratively finding solutions, along the lines of the mayor’s Sustainability pLAn. For instance, if you have a film shoot with catering, instead of sending all the leftovers to the landfill, there are groups that will connect the shoot to nearby homeless shelters, or other places that will take food donations.
There’s a big economic question as well, having to do with markets for our regular recyclable materials. Right now, we’re dependent on the price of plastic in China and other things we have no control over to make recycling pencil out for the private haulers that we do business with. This is something that folks at CalRecycle have been thinking about, too: creating local markets statewide for recyclable materials. We need to think about how we can create markets that we have more control over to help grow our local economy, as well as protect our environment—so that we’re not shipping everything overseas, for example. We need to think broadly about how to find the highest and best end uses for products that we’ve previously been sending to the landfills.
VX News: We interviewed you a year ago, when you first joined the Board of Public Works. Reflect on what you’ve learned in that year.
Heather Repenning: When you consider the vast array of streets, sidewalks and sewers in this city, all of which need constant oversight and management, it has become clear to me that we have a huge responsibility that can sometimes be daunting. It’s also been gratifying to see how much of an impact good policy can have. Because we are such a big city, everything we do is big.
The programs we’ve been advancing—our LED street-lighting conversion citywide, for example—end up saving a ton of energy. I’ve really come to appreciate the scope of what we do at Public Works, and the positive impact we can have.