Thank You, Del Biagi, Wherever You Are

If you are an environmentally-minded kind of person, this is a thrilling story, and an unbelievable accomplishment.

State officials announced Thursday that California has finally achieved its goal of reducing landfill waste by 50%, thanks to diligent recycling by residents and businesses.

The milestone culminates a 16-year campaign by the state to persuade people to separate recyclables out of the trash.
The state passed a landmark law in 1989 mandating that communities establish waste-management plans for residents and businesses that would ultimately divert at least 50% of all recyclable trash from landfills. California was supposed to reach the goal in 2000, but preliminary data released Thursday show that the goal wasn’t reached until last year.

A total of 88 million tons of solid waste was recycled in 2005 for a 52% recycling rate, said Jon Myers, a spokesman for the state’s Integrated Waste Management Board. In 2004, 76 million tons were recycled, or 48%.

Though some cities still lag behind, other communities that are now diverting 60% or more of their waste to recycling centers made up the difference.

tom-bradley.jpgThat 1989 law would never have passed unless, a year earlier, my boss, the late Mayor Tom Bradley hadn’t publicly commmited the City of Los Angeles to recycling (or “beneficially reusing”) at least 50 percent of its trash. And Mayor Bradley wouldn’t have had the nerve to make what seemed like an outrageously ambitious commitment if his Bureau of Sanitation director Del Biagi hadn’t said to me, and then later to the mayor, “What the hell, why don’t we just tell everybody we’re going to recycle half our trash?”

Up til then, Biagi had been a reluctant supporter of recycling. A few short months before these conversations started, Biagi was still trying to talk me out of telling the mayor he should abandon the trash-burning LANCER project. Biagi was running a small pilot recycling program on the Westside. To appease me, he said he’d be willing to expand it. “Into every council district?” I asked, since I knew none of them wanted to be left out. “Grrr,” said Biagi. We used to have these bantering conversations in the awful food court in City Hall Mall, eating baked potato and salad from Leon’s.

I wish I could take the credit for talking Biagi into his new position, but I think it was his staff — the sharpest bunch of garbagemen you’ll ever meet. Or maybe it was Biagi’s refined sense of which way the political winds were blowing. Biagi was, to me, the quintessential city department manager in Los Angeles — a Zen surfer on shifting currents. In real life, he was a surfer, and I think he found peace in imagining himself shooting the curl whenever a councilmember was berating him in public, which happened frequently.

Whatever happened, over yet another baked potato, Biagi pulled the 50 percent rabbit out of his hat. Within a few weeks, Bradley and several members of the Council announced the goal. It led to the development of a citywide curbside recycling program to be phased in over, I think, about seven years. When it was done, it was the largest municipal curbside recycling program in the country, and due to LA’s size, it probably still is.

I don’t know if the state of California would’ve had the courage to propose such an ambitious goal if the biggest city in the state hadn’t gone first. And I don’t think I would have had the balls to tell Mayor Bradley to announce a 50 percent goal if Biagi hadn’t sprung it on me first. It was like Babe Ruth calling his home run in the 1932 World Series. The chances of failure were a lot higher than the chances of success, but Biagi knew his team could make it happen.

So if you are into recycling and are happy that California’s stopped filling canyons with our trash, tip your post-consumer chapeau in the direction of Del Biagi, the reluctant environmentalist, now retired, and hopefully enjoying some tasty waves in a secluded cove somewhere off of Orange County.

(Meanwhile, after my vacation, I’ll try to find out the fate of Councilman Greig Smith’s pledge to divert 100 percent of our waste and his new ideas on trash-burning, which I wrote about here.)

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