Dealing With Downtown’s Dumping Debacle

Downtown Los Angeles faces numerous challenges, from teeming tent encampments to worsening gridlock. Now add another issue: a surge in illegal garbage dumping.

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Leaders of multiple Business Improvement Districts, the private organizations that tax property owners to pay for services such as clean and safe teams, say large amounts of garbage are increasingly and illegally being deposited on public and private property. The situation is stressing the ability of the BIDs to respond.

“We can pick up a couple of crates of rotting tomatoes without batting an eye,” said Estela Lopez, executive director of the Industrial District Business Improvement District. “But what has become increasingly clear is that illegal dumping is on the rise. The more we pick up, the more we become free trash triage for people who should be properly disposing of their own waste.”

BID leaders say numerous factors are contributing to the rise. That includes longstanding issues such as business owners who ignore trash disposal regulations, and people who drive in from other communities to drop their garbage.

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Then there’s another potential factor: Some local leaders say garbage has spiked since the 2017 launch of RecycLA. The city-orchestrated program vastly altered garbage pick-up in Los Angeles, dividing the city into 11 zones and awarding exclusive franchise agreements to trash haulers. Previously, building owners had been able to negotiate their own garbage hauling with a company of their choosing.

The program was marred by early problems including missed pick-ups and soaring fees. While the public anger has largely subsided, some BID heads say they are hauling more garbage, not less, in the RecycLA era.

Rena Masten Leddy, executive director of the Fashion District BID, said that since RecycLA went into effect in the Fashion District in August 2017, the average amount of trash picked up per day by the BID has increased from 7.5 to 14 tons.

“We are seeing a direct correlation from when RecycLA started, and when our numbers started to increase,” Leddy said.

Anthony Rodriguez, the Fashion District’s operations manager, said his patrol teams have experienced a spike in trash from area vendors and businesses. This means everything from pallets of rotting mangoes and avocados to bags filled with marijuana waste, an apparent result of the surge in cannabis shops.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Rod­riguez showed a reporter a number of locations in the district where garbage bags were left near a light post or on the curb. Rod­riguez said that the problem has placed a strain on his clean and safe teams, as well as the BID’s budget.

All Kinds of Clutter

While the term “illegal dumping” typically generates visions of large, bulky items left on sidewalks and in alleys, people active in trash pick-up in Downtown say it is manifested in a variety of forms, from garbage bags to leftover food scraps to collections of cardboard boxes.

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The Industrial District, which has numerous large warehouses and few residents, has long been a spot for those dumping refuse. But things are getting worse: Lopez said that her crews saw about a 10% spike in the amount of trash picked up last year. She added that her teams frequently respond to construction materials and food left to rot on the streets.

Lopez said that the numbers are impacted by the Operation Healthy Streets cleanings that the city conducts in the area four days a week. Meant to address garbage left by homeless encampments, the cleanings include power washing streets and sweeping away trash. Without the cleanings, she said the spike for the Industrial District would be even higher.

“We see furniture, old tires, and all sorts of commercial discards,” Lopez said. “Plus, it’s an industrial zone where commerce shuts down at an early hour, providing ample opportunity for people to dump in the dark.”

The problem is different in every district. Blair Besten, executive director of the Historic Core BID, said that her neighborhood has also recorded an increase in the amount of trash being dumped. Additionally, she said, there has been an issue with leftover food scraps and containers from curbside food vendors.

Like Leddy, Besten said the Historic Core has seen a massive jump in trash picked up since RecycLA went into effect. Whereas her staff hauled approximately 34,000 “bulky items” in 2017, she said that if the first quarter numbers remain consistent, Historic Core crews will remove about 55,000 bulky items this year.

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It is difficult if not impossible to fully account for the rise in garbage on the streets. The increasing tent encampments contribute, and there have long been businesses and building owners who never had a contract with a hauler, and dumped with impunity.

Dealing With Downtown’s Dumping Debacle

Still, some Downtown leaders believe that, since RecycLA went into effect, certain building owners that previously had a contract with a trash hauler have not worked out service with the replacement company, whether due to miscommunication or unhappiness with higher rates. With no contracted service, more property owners or individual tenants than in the past may be disposing of their garbage any way they see fit.

When RecycLA began, NASA Services was awarded the contract to provide garbage hauling service in most of Downtown (the company Universal Waste Systems handles hauling in parts of El Pueblo and Chinatown). Jack Topalian, general manager for NASA, said he could not speak to the amount of trash being picked up by area BIDs, or why they are hauling more trash than before the implementation of RecycLA.

Topalian said that new property owners are signing up with NASA Services every day, but acknowledged that there are still businesses that ignore their franchise hauler in lieu of an illegal service, or no service at all.

He said that enforcement responsibilities against businesses that do not use a proper trash hauling service do not fall on franchise haulers like NASA. He added that NASA employees do document and notify businesses when they become aware of a property without proper service.

Masten Leddy said that her teams frequently call the city Bureau of Sanitation to remove large and bulky items. The Fashion District BID also operates a parking lot in the southern portion of the district where some large items are stored until the Bureau of Sanitation can take them away.

Leddy and Besten both applauded the bureau’s responsiveness, but each questioned the rollout of RecycLA, pointing to the evidence of more trash on the streets being taken away by their teams. They questioned the city’s enforcement efforts.

While acknowledging that illegal dumping occurs in Downtown, Elena Stern, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Sanitation, said that the city has not noticed an uptick in incidents in Downtown, except around holidays and other events that draw large crowds.

Stern said the department fields a constant stream of dumping reports throughout the year. She said the city has heard the complaints related to RecycLA, and is consistently trying to address and respond to problems.

“We acknowledge that the launch of RecycLA was bumpy,” Stern said. “We are always working to improve the program and one of the benefits of the way it was set up is the amount of accountability that service providers are held to.”

Masten Leddy countered that if the Bureau of Sanitation has not noticed a spike in garbage on the streets, it is likely because the heavy lifting is being handled by various BIDs.

Referring to business owners, she said, “They know that if they put it out on the sidewalks and the alleys, it’s not going to stay there for very long because we do our jobs.”

Long-Running Problem

City leaders have long sought to get a handle on dumping. In 2015, 15th District Councilman Joe Buscaino introduced a motion to create a strategy to reduce illegal dumping. The following year, Eighth District Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson introduced a similar motion, requesting that the city explore ways to increase penalties against people found guilty of illegal dumping. In January, Third District Councilman Bob Blumenfield introduced a motion seeking to explore ways to curb illegal dumping at apartment buildings.

While illegal dumping is a misdemeanor that carries a fine of $1,000 per violation, that seems to have no effect on the streets of Downtown. As previous city motions have noted, the potential fine is seen as a “cost of doing business” for some. State penalties of a fine of up to $10,000, and up to six months in jail for illegal dumping on public and private property, also appear not to have stopped the flow.

Stern said that catching people who do not properly dispose of their trash requires tips and video evidence. Yet she and others note that can prove difficult, as perpetrators often act at night or dump their garbage in unmonitored areas.

Stern suggested that people who come across an illegal dump site, or notice someone dumping items from vehicles, call the city’s 311 line, or the Bureau of Sanitation’s illegal dumping and bulky item pick-up line at (800) 773-2489.

Lopez said that waiting for a response from the city is often unacceptable for BID directors who must heed the requests of stakeholders.

“We cannot wait. Our crews cannot simply drive by and ignore a problem,” Lopez said.

Masten Leddy had a similar response. She said the Fashion District BID prepared for an increase in dumping when putting together its most recent budget. Still, she wonders when the strain will become too much. According to Rodriguez, her operations manager, if trends do not change, the garbage hauling allotment will be approximately $100,000 over budget by December.

“We will not be able to keep doing this,” Masten Leddy said. “But if we did not do this, that’s 28,000 pounds of trash on city streets.”

sean@downtownnews.com

©Los Angeles Downtown News 2019