LA Sanitation's 'RecycLA' & Sustainability Initiatives Outlined

Enrique Zaldivar

This month, the City of LA Bureau of Sanitation began its widely anticipated RecycLA waste hauling franchise service that was aimed at localizing service and improving waste recovery. To assess the implementation of the significant shift and its impact on achieving LA's zero waste goals, VX News sat down with LA Sanitation General Manager Enrique Zaldivar. Recently appointed to the Executive Board of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies, Zaldivar is attempting to champion water recycling and water management solutions in the city to achieve Mayor Garcetti's ambitious water resiliency goals. Zaldivar also comments on the importance of leadership and institutional knowledge transfer, as he recently helped honor three of his former predecessors last winter. 

You spoke to The Planning Report in 2012 about the challenges of managing Los Angeles’ clean water, solid resources, and watershed resources for a city of four million. You laid out an ambitious agenda for the Bureau of Sanitation. Five years later, share the progress made during your tenure as director, especially with regard to the new recycLA initiative.

Enrique Zaldivar: RecycLA has a great deal of benefits for the city and for the region as a whole. Because of its size, and all the logistics involved in a transformation of this magnitude, this system will create incredible new organizational capacity for the city to manage solid resources for at least the next 30 years.

We are moving away from our dependency on landfilling. Replacing landfilling with an approach that centers resource recovery will require a sophisticated organizational infrastructure, and that is what recycLA offers.

Reducing emissions is a huge merit of the recycLA system. It’s important that we bring to bear the best practices when it comes to improving the environmental health of the city. Previously, we used about 1,000 waste-hauling trucks, which had a significant impact on both emissions and traffic. Now, every one of the franchisee companies will use clean-fuel trucks. There will also be efficient routing, reducing the number of trucks that end up being deployed on any one street in any one city. That will translate into reducing traffic impacts. How could that not be a benefit to every Angeleno?

Solid waste has always been somewhat out of sight and out of mind. Now, we are bringing it to the forefront as something that is of import to the entire community. There’s a whole infrastructure behind waste management, and it needs to meet a standard that is up to par with what every Angeleno would expect. The 1960s and ’70s brought us Superfund sites because things were being done in ways that they shouldn’t have been. We don’t want that kind of kind of legacy.

Elaborate on LASAN’s responsibility to ensure Los Angeles is a resilient, sustainable city.

We’re proud of what we do for the citizens of this great city, but the fact is that hardly anybody ever sees what LASAN does on their behalf. We’re largely invisible; our work is mostly underground or behind the scenes.

With 4 million people, Los Angeles is the second largest city in the country, as well as a very progressive city with great economic activity. There is a lot that goes on here with regard to solid waste, wastewater, clean water, and stormwater infrastructure. And each one of those systems is vast, expansive, and complicated.

We benefit from the support of our ratepayers, who provide us with the ability to invest in our present as well as in our future. RecycLA is one example; we have also done so in stormwater and watershed protection. All of this is to make LA an even more resilient, sustainable, and great city than it is now.

LASAN is the lead on the LA Solid Waste Integrated Resource Plan, also known as the Zero Waste Plan. Eight years out from the city’s target of diverting 90 percent of its waste from landfills by 2025, is that goal achievable?

We’ve made great progress. Sometimes the most difficult thing is the vision, and we have benefitted from Mayor Garcetti’s leadership in laying out a vision of moving this city toward zero waste. Frankly, that in itself has been a huge accomplishment.

One thing that has come out of the Zero Waste initiative, which I don’t think anyone envisioned, was our entry into food recovery. We found that so much of the residual waste that continues to go to the landfill is organic waste—specifically, food waste. That has opened everyone’s eyes, and we’ve had to think about what it says about our systems. Does it mean that we are overconsuming? Does it mean that we are not making use of leftover food in restaurants and institutions?

Food recovery has now become a big part of our diversion strategy, to the benefit of our society. Think of it: One of the noblest of principles—feeding the poor—has found its way into our city’s zero-waste strategy. We welcome this opportunity to serve society in a bigger way, and we are going to be working with city leadership and the charitable infrastructure of the city to facilitate this effort.

Given how relatively invisible the Bureau of Sanitation is to the general public, even though it is supported through a rate base, speak to how you gain the support of the council and the public for executing on the city’s stretch sustainability goals.

It all begins with the fundamental compact that we have with our customers: We must provide the services that they expect. This is sacrosanct to our ability to gain trust. The capacity of our leadership to move us in more progressive directions, toward how we foresee the future, flows from there. And that compact relies on the commitment of our staff in the field—those who have first contact with customers.

It means ensuring that we’re out in the neighborhoods collecting recyclables and solid waste in a timely manner, and that we’re operating efficiently, proficiently, and professionally. It means that folks should never have to worry about whether the wastewater/clean water system is reliable. They should always be able to depend on their day going without any interruptions from the sink, the shower, the toilet, or any of the greater infrastructure that downstream.

When it comes to pursuing our vision, as a department, we are creative. We are risk-takers; we are entrepreneurial. We are willing to partner with others, including our community partners and the engineering and construction communities. This work requires an awful lot of partnerships. That’s something that we as a department, and I as the department leader, must be able to do.

In the winter, you hosted a ceremony for three of your predecessors: former general managers Del Biagi, Judy Wilson, and Rita Robinson. Speak to the continuity of leadership of the Bureau over the decades and the shoulders you stand on as the current director.

This ceremony was very significant for all of us at LA SAN—both those who have around a while, like I have, and those who are fairly new. It’s important for all of us to see how a department evolves, and how every one of its leaders has made such a dent and a difference in shaping the department.

Del is the director that I came up with; he had a long tenure, and came to the department when the Clean Water Act came online, with all of the transformations that that brought about. Judy was the first person who came to run the department completely from the outside, and she brought us a culture of efficiency. Rita, while she had a shorter tenure, also made an incredibly lasting contribution to this department.

All three of them also had one thing in common: They believed in me. Every one of them promoted me to a higher capacity during their tenure. I appreciate their votes of confidence, and in a way, I am a product of all three of them.

Pivoting back to the Bureau’s management challenges: This month, Louisiana’s governor declared a state of emergency in response to heavy flooding in New Orleans after a deluge of rain. As you well know, this flooding quickly disrupted their sanitation system. Address LASAN’s critical resiliency goals—what infrastructure investment is needed and how it is maintained—to avoid what New Orleans experienced.

Thanks to the leadership of Mayor Garcetti, we have adopted a broader vision of resiliency and elevated the way we prepare our infrastructure to operate in the most challenging of conditions—whether an earthquake or even a deluge.

For example, we have coastal facilities that could be subject to sea-level rise, and we’re looking into what that might mean for us. If a pumping station is only six or 12 feet above sea level right now, that doesn’t give us a whole lot of room to maintain operability in the event of sea-level rise. We’re beginning to make those facilities more resilient against that possibility.

As we reuse more of our water, we also have to understand what that is going to mean for our collection system. Unlike most cities in the US, LA uses a dual conveyance system: one for wastewater and one for stormwater. But because of our limited rainfall here, the stormwater system goes underutilized, if not unused, for most of the year. We need to think about the good and bad consequences of that.

I have issued a challenge to our staff to review the infrastructure and the assets that we currently own. We’re self-questioning a lot to make sure we achieve the highest and best use for what we have.

Let’s put LA’s sustainability goals and initiatives in a national context. You’ve just been elected to the board of the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA). What can LA learn from NACWA, as well as contribute to the national conversation?

NACWA is the premier organization that represents the clean water industry. LASAN’s association with them began perhaps 25 years ago. Our assistant director Adel Hagekhalil was NACWA president until recently, and has long been an incredible contributor. That has tremendously benefitted Sanitation and the city of LA by extension. With my recent election into the board, I wanted to ensure a continuity of representation and leadership for Los Angeles in NACWA. 

NACWA recently released a whitepaper entitled Envisioning the Digital Utility of the FutureHow does their research figure into the initiatives and programs that LA is involved in, or could become involved in in the near future?

NACWA championed the creation of One Water at the national level. We in Los Angeles embraced that concept and in fact adopted our own local One Water initiative, which was fully championed by Mayor Garcetti and the City Council. That tells you the kind of leadership that goes on at NACWA.

The ideas behind One Water will continue to guide utilities’ evolution, including our relationship with ratepayers, accountability to ratepayers, and expectations of ratepayers—as well as our ability to adapt to changes in the future.

For example, we have to understand the role, or lack thereof, of the federal government. Many leaders in this space came up at a time when the federal government provided a great deal of funding for infrastructure investments. That is no longer the case. Utilities have had to adapt to a world where the federal government has no financial participation in our work whatsoever, yet does have an awful lot of regulatory participation.

To close, the City of Los Angeles recently affirmed an agreement with the International Olympics Committee to host the 2028 Olympic Games. What do you hope the city will be able showcase in terms of sustainability by 2028?

Everyone is excited about the Olympics coming back to LA, so we thank the mayor and the City Council. To the extent possible, we in my industry will represent the best of LA.

Our current goal is to be 90 percent landfill-free by 2025. By 2028, I think that LA—and perhaps the state as a whole—will have set a clear date for ending landfilling as a practice altogether. And I don’t think that date will be too far out from 2028—perhaps even before.


We will also have made inroads in the mindset of Angelenos. In 10 years, I think recognition of resource recovery as a centerpiece to making this city resilient and sustainable will be fully mainstream.

"In 10 years, I think recognition of resource recovery as a centerpiece to making this city resilient and sustainable will be fully mainstream." - Enrique Zaldivar