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16 Sep 2013

Taking Out the Trash: How Many Coachella Valley Businesses, Apartment Complexes and Condos Are Ignoring a New State Recycling Law?

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A quick and far-from-scientific survey by the Independent of six downtown Palm Springs apartment and condo complexes revealed that only two of the six had recycling bins. La Ventana, located at 300 S. Calle El Segundo, offers residents a recycling bin (pictured); La Ventana’s neighbor, the San Jacinto Racquet Club, at 900 E. Saturnino Road, does not, in apparent violation of the new law. A quick and far-from-scientific survey by the Independent of six downtown Palm Springs apartment and condo complexes revealed that only two of the six had recycling bins. La Ventana, located at 300 S. Calle El Segundo, offers residents a recycling bin (pictured); La Ventana’s neighbor, the San Jacinto Racquet Club, at 900 E. Saturnino Road, does not, in apparent violation of the new law. Jimmy Boegle

If you live in a California apartment or condo complex that doesn’t offer a recycling program, your complex is probably breaking the law.

It’s been more than a year since July 1, 2012, when a new mandatory recycling program for businesses and multi-family residential dwellings went into effect. Under the mandate, which was passed as Assembly Bill 341 in 2011, all businesses and complexes that produce at least four cubic yards of solid waste per week, and all multi-family residential places with at least five units, must implement a recycling program. (A standard dumpster is three cubic yards, and if it is emptied more than once a week, the mandatory recycling law applies.)

In total, the law targets 470,000 businesses and apartment complexes statewide, making green living a requirement for many—and mandating a hefty job for towns and counties given the task of enforcing it.

AB 341 also declared that at least 75 percent of solid waste generated be reduced, recycled or composted by the year 2020. California’s counties and towns will be submitting their first reports in October regarding how they plan to meet these hefty goals.

According to the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, aka CalRecycle, before the 2011 law was passed, 64 percent of the state’s solid waste came from commercial sources. Additionally, 8 percent of the state’s solid waste came from multi-family residential housing—trash that was often collected along with commercial waste.

In Palm Springs, officials believe they are not only on the right track; they say they are ahead of the game.

City Sustainability Manager Michele Mician said city officials don’t think they will need any fancy tactics or separate policies to bring businesses into compliance. Instead of a full plan, Mician said the city has chosen to simply follow what’s required in the law, and has spent the first year reaching out to businesses and apartment complexes.

“We immediately began going door to door to explain the law and let business-owners know how it works,” she said. “We’ve had a very positive response in the first year. Complying with the law only benefits these businesses, because it really does save money by reducing hauling fees.”

In other words, it may be cheaper for apartment and condo complexes to add a bin for recycling, although space can be an issue.

While it is easy for most commercial businesses to understand the requirements of the law, Mician said some multi-family complex owners aren’t sure whether or not they are required to comply. Therefore, an education-outreach program has become especially important.

“I think it’s all about education,” she said. “For apartments, it does depend on the size and the number of units. We’ve run into some problems with complex managers who are not doing it, because they feel it’s more the responsibility of each individual tenant.”

Chris Cunningham, the vice president of recycling for Palm Springs Disposal Services, the authorized waste-hauler for Palm Springs (and the sister company of Desert Hot Springs’ waste-hauler, Desert Valley Disposal), said he has seen a positive response from all businesses, including apartment complexes.

“The plan of attack to start the year was to get the information together, and we started putting the information in newsletters,” Cunningham said. “We put the newsletter out to all customers, but that doesn’t mean they saw it. Now, residents can easily contact the town to help us get the remaining businesses in compliance.”

The newsletters were sent along with monthly billing statements to businesses and owners of multi-family complexes that are subject to the law. However, residents of those complexes did not receive the newsletters—and as a result, they may not know their complexes are ignoring the new law.

Desert Oasis, located on Country Club Drive in Palm Desert and one of the valley’s apartment complexes, offers recycling via a Burrtec bin.Meanwhile, in the rest of Coachella Valley (except for Desert Hot Springs), Burrtec handles trash and recycling collection.

To bring these valley communities into compliance with AB 341, Burrtec has offered businesses and multi-family complexes a variety of options. Burrtec encourages businesses to either subscribe to recycling services from Burrtec; arrange for other pickup methods; haul recyclables to a recycling center themselves; or utilize a mixed-waste processing center.

As part of an education and outreach program, Burrtec offers businesses a complimentary waste and recycling survey to assess their needs and whether or not the law applies.

In Palm Springs and Desert Hot Springs, Cunningham couldn’t provide exact numbers on how many businesses and complexes were in compliance with the law as of our press deadline, but he said the information would be provided in the required reports to the state in October. Burrtec will be submitting a similar report for the rest of Coachella Valley.

Both Cunningham and Mician said that Palm Springs was already pro-recycling before the law was passed. Mician estimated that about 80 percent of residents were already recycling, while Cunningham estimated that about 75 percent of all commercial businesses are in compliance, and 80 percent of multi-family complexes are in compliance.

However, a quick and far-from-unscientific survey by the Independent showed those numbers may be a bit high. We checked out six multi-family complexes in an area bounded by Ramon Road, Avenida Caballeros, Arenas Road and Calle Encilla—and we were able to find recycling bins at just two of the six complexes. (In fact, the editor of the Independent lives at one of the complexes that does not offer recycling.)

So, what should concerned residents do if their housing complex or employer is not following the new law?

Cunningham said the city of Palm Springs is relying on residents to speak up. Reports from residents have allowed officials to communicate with individual complexes to see if they are required to comply with AB 341, he said.

With the first-year focus being on outreach and education, Cunningham said the city has not even considered penalties for those not in compliance. As of now, state law leaves penalties up to local jurisdictions—meaning the law has no real enforcement teeth.

“That is going to fall on the state in the future,” he said. “I think they put a lot into passing this bill, but not as much effort into penalties. That will likely come later down the road.”

Cunningham noted that San Francisco has recycling police in place, but most other entities have not gotten that far in implementing the new state mandates.

Heather Jones, a public information officer for CalRecycle, said state officials are excited to see how counties, towns and cities throughout the state did in the first year of implementing and enforcing AB 341; they’ll get their first data in the October report.

“We’ve spent the last year working with all jurisdictions on developing education and outreach programs,” she said. “This first year really was about getting things going.”

Jones said the first year’s success is hard to measure in numbers, given there was no baseline to use. Still, Jones said state officials are optimistic about meeting the 2020 recycling goals—but she admitted it will take time to continue educating multi-family complex owners about their responsibilities and bringing all commercial businesses into compliance.

Getting commercial establishments to recycle more is a key part of the state’s goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). AB 341 is designed to reduce GHG emissions by 5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide—which would require the state to recycle an additional two to three million tons of materials every year between now and the year 2020.

To ask questions about compliance, in Palm Springs, call Palm Springs Disposal Services at 760-327-1351; in La Quinta, Indian Wells, Palm Desert, Rancho Mirage, Cathedral City and adjacent unincorporated areas, call Burrtec at (760) 340-2113; in Coachella, Indio, Mecca, Oasis, Thermal and the Salton Sea area, call Burrtec at (760) 393-0635; and in Desert Hot Springs, call Desert Valley Disposal at (760) 329-5030.

Jimmy Boegle contributed to this story.

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