Every morning the armada of trucks would rumble down the familiar access roads onto the freeway, hauling tons of solid waste from this city's posh west side communities to landfill sites near the Santa Monica Mountains.
Now the trucks take longer, more expensive routes. The old dump sites are filled to capacity. And new "trash wars" are breaking out in communities around the state as Californians debate how to dispose of 46 million tons of solid waste every year.
In a state with a rich history of rangeland skirmishes, water-rights battles and mineral disputes, garbage has become the latest battleground. And as the disposal problem worsens and political tempers fray, state officials talk in terms of impending crisis.
They are funding various experiments, including curbside recycling projects and trash-burning power plants. They also have turned to trained mediators to work out compromises between city and county officials vying for authority over existing and planned disposal sites.
"What do you do when you finally reach the crisis situation?" asks Terry Trimble, the director of California's Waste Management Board in Sacramento. "Our studies indicate that every time you close a landfill, you double the garbage collection costs. It's a problem that needs a comprehensive solution. There isn't one approach that we can say will solve the problem."
The situation in Los Angeles mirrors the statewide problem. The closure of the last remaining west side landfill in mid-January caused cities like Beverly Hills and Santa Monica to build $1 million transfer stations so that their trash can be moved from smaller trucks to tractor-trailers and hauled to dump sites farther away. A county study predicts it will cost former users of the now-closed west side dump an additional $22 million to dispose of garbage.
Local officials fear an increase in illegal dumping. Air pollution is certain to rise as large trucks carry trash long distances. Homeowner sanitation bills are expected to double by the end of the year as municipalities pass along the cost increases.
"We did a survey last year that showed, by the end of 1985, 55 percent of all the landfill capacity in the state will have expired," said Tom Epstein, director of communication and legislation for the waste board. "All the disposal sites on the west side of Los Angeles County have closed. That means the entire area served, which is 40 miles long, is at least 20 miles from a landfill site.
"This is not unique to Los Angeles. It's happening all over the place. In San Francisco there's not a disposal site left within the city."
As a possible solution, some state lawmakers are discussing granting the waste board additional authority to operate the disposal sites that are dividing city and county governments. No measures have been introduced, and many city officials are expected to fight hard against that approach, arguing that local land-use decisions will be usurped by another powerful state agency.
Meanwhile, state officials are hoping to reduce the amount of solid waste produced. A comprehensive curbside recycling plan was unveiled in January in Santa Monica, where the city is faced with a $100,000 annual increase in costs to haul 200 tons of trash a day to the San Fernando Valley.
The recycling program, called the most ambitious voluntary effort in the nation, involves curbside pickup of glass, newspapers and aluminum cans from every household in the city every two weeks. Even high-density apartment areas are included; all tenants are within one block of special "recycling centers." The program cost $388,000 in its first year, with the state picking up most of the tab. More than 40 percent of the city's 88,000 residents participated in the first month, officials said.
But even this has run into problems. Santa Monica hoped to recoup most of the cost of the project by selling the recycled goods, but the national recession has led to the collapse of the recycled-goods market. Officials said prices for glass, newspaper and aluninum dropped 40 to 70 percent in the last year. And some private businessmen have sued the city, claiming the recycling violates antitrust laws.
Nevertheless, state officials estimate 25 percent of California's solid waste could be recycled if the Santa Monica project succeeds and is extended to other communities. Such programs will become more cost-effective, the officials say, as the cost of landfill continues to rise in Los Angeles and other areas of the state.