Some downtown building owners think new trash hauling policy stinks news ladowntownnews.com gas meter in spanish

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For decades, private waste hauling companies competed for business around Los Angeles. RecycLA has divided the city into 11 zones, each operated exclusively by a company that won a bid. NASA Services is the operator within nearly all of the Downtown “freeway ring,” while Universal Waste Systems has the contract north of the 101 Freeway around El Pueblo and Chinatown.

Under RecycLA, the 11 operators are more tightly regulated than in the past, with city mandates for low-emission trash trucks, more transparent pricing, higher wages for workers, and a push to make more consumers recycle. The city continues to handle trash removal for single-family homes.

The new system came about, in part, because previously private waste management companies were not incentivizing recycling to enough consumers, said Elena Stern, a representative for the city Department of Sanitation. That meant spotty recycling from roughly 80,000 businesses and apartment buildings. They account for 70% of the waste headed to landfills, according to a study by the L.A. Alliance for a New Economy, which helped lead the charge for the new program.

“There are other cities that have taken this exclusive franchise approach, but not at this magnitude and the level of benefits provided under RecycLA,” Stern said. “The fundamental aim is to reduce landfills, as the vision is for L.A. to be landfill-free in the next decade, if not sooner.”

The rollout has already begun in neighborhoods such as the Financial District, South Park, Chinatown and much of the Arts District. A big swath of the Historic Core will see the transition this week, on Wednesday, Nov. 1, followed by a Dec. 1 start in part of the Industrial District and a Jan. 1 launch in the Fashion District.

The 10-year contracts given to the exclusive waste operators are valued at $3.5 billion total; a portion of that goes into the city general fund. Universal Waste, for instance, must pay a quarterly franchise fee of 10.5% of gross receipts billed to customers for base services, and another 10% of gross receipts from additional services. The city is expected to reap $35 million a year from the program.

Mark Chatoff, owner of the California Flower Mall and a director on the board of the Fashion District Business Improvement District, knew the change was coming. In an attempt to streamline the transition before the Jan. 1 start date, he began a new contract with NASA in July.

The results, he said, have been disastrous: Chatoff’s waste costs have doubled, and in some cases tripled, he said. A majority of the Flower Mall’s waste is green material, which used to receive a discount under Chatoff’s old trash hauler. Now it comes with a surcharge.

“Now it’s costing more per ton for green versus regular mixed trash, which is appalling if we’re trying to be environmentally friendly,” Chatoff said. “And there’s penalties if that green waste is contaminated in any way. So what’s the point? I’ve chosen to pay for mixed waste.”

Managers of large developments are feeling the same pressure. GH Palmer Associates, headed by developer Geoff Palmer, is one of the most prolific apartment builders in the city, with a number of massive Downtown properties including the recently opened Broadway Palace.

Jamie Meyer, counsel for GHP Management (which oversees property services), noted that the purported incentives under RecycLA have not helped increase the volume of recyclables collected at GHP properties, and is unlikely to do so in the future.

In the meantime, he reports an “astonishing decline in the level and consistency of services provided despite exorbitant price increases.” This is particularly the case, he said, with “access” and “distance” fees that are triggered when a trash hauler has to unlock a padlock to open a gate or drag a dumpster more than 100 feet.

“Across the board, prices have increased from 200% to 800%, plus,” Meyer said. “Exclusive providers are using distance and access fees under the RecycLA program to artificially increase pricing among a segmented and underserved population of LA stakeholders.”

Chatoff admitted that the new costs have made him accelerate rent increases that may not be sustainable with his Flower Mall tenants. Residential property owners could follow suit, though landlords of rent-controlled buildings like Jung may be forced to swallow the costs.

Both UWS and NASA representatives acknowledged they have heard numerous concerns about rising costs, but reaffirmed that RecycLA is boosting recycling in Downtown, and that the new program offers more flexibility to fit the needs of individual clients.

“After our Zero Waste team performs a waste assessment, we present it to the customer. If the customer’s account is subject to fees, such as distance or access, we make suggestions that could help the customer avoid them,” said Sean Finn, sustainability manager for UWS.

“Many of the small businesses in our zone reported that they were not able to get recycling services or negotiate good rates because they had no ‘buying’ power,” Gregory said. “Now, these small businesses are guaranteed access to recycling services and the same rate for the same services regardless if they have 20 stores or one.”

In a sense, the city is responding to pressure to reform how it processes waste. A trio of state bills mandate increases in recycling from businesses and demand major reductions in methane gas emissions from landfills. The RecycLA program gives the city a “head start” on achieving those goals, the Department of Sanitation’s Stern said.

“The cost of doing business is going up for the city,” she added. “State mandates require us to change methods, whether that’s clean-fuel trucks, doing more annual bin cleanings, more graffiti removal. And now waste companies have to pay a livable minimum wage since they’re working with the city.”

The city has hired 100 agents to handle complaints and questions stemming from RecycLA, and 40 inspectors to visit properties and deal with disputes. Stern recommends that landlords seeing increased fees get a waste assessment, which involves meeting with a hauler to review a building’s waste and negotiate more appropriate rates.