It was a war to the knife at City Hall in Los Angeles in the 1950s and ’60s. Official LA tossed around insults like “pathological liar” and “dictator” and “unholy alliance.”
The vicious debates revolved around what we call recycling today, but what was then called, tonelessly, “separation,” the separation of recyclable trash from the rest.
Embarrassingly, official LA fought a pitched battle over the city’s trash in the ’50s and ’60s, when other people in the nation were fighting the good fight for racial justice.
It’s still an amazing read, and the LA Times had enough perspective to marvel in March 1963: “Los Angeles is probably the only city in the nation that trashes hundreds of thousands of words of newspaper copy and hundreds of hours of radio and television time.”
To this day, Southern Californians routinely separate their recyclables from garden waste from hopeless garbage. So it’s hard to conjure up the sour passions that have reigned over it, lasting almost a dozen years.
Yet those passions were enough to help one man defeat an incumbent LA mayor, and they threatened to strip the city council of its members when the public found out that not segregating trash could mean a non-segregator for potentially six months could put in jail.
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So welcome, new state composting law — the law that requires Californians to separate organic waste from other garbage and declares cities and counties to collect organic garbage from residents and businesses. But it leaves the state’s many hundreds of cities and counties to work out the details.
Ever since people tried to live far from the sight and smell of their own manure heaps, they have also hoped that someone – nowadays it’s commoner mages – will take away their nasty by-products. Los Angeles, for example, took the bold step nearly 150 years ago to outlaw dumping cattle for slaughter on public sidewalks.
In 1905, a “garbage committee” headed by Mrs. JG McLean called for a more subtle and sanitary garbage disposal in LA than the noisy and disagreeable practice of collecting garbage cans and then tossing them onto public sidewalks with a clatter, as The Times appetizingly wrote, lay them “with memories of the day before last night’s dinner on their sides, to fester and roast in the fierce rays of the sun”.
Mrs McLean triumphed. The city agreed to begin work on a municipal incinerator and begin less intrusive garbage collection through metal-clad, covered vehicles. “We asked for a crust and they gave us the whole bread.”
In the first decade of the 20th century, LA’s urban population tripled, and so did its trash. In 1911, the city gave up private garbage collection and went its own way, at least in the city center. As late as 1940, the city collected trash twice a week in neighborhoods, three times a week in neighborhoods, and every night downtown, but independent companies collected trash at the port, in Venice, and in the burgeoning homes of the San Fernando Valley.
What did LA do with it? The arguably edible stuff was sent to pig farms in places like Fontana and Soledad Canyon. When the Los Angeles River floods washed out railroad bridges in 1938, the city was forced to dump the garbage in the river, as generations of Angelenos had already done with their garbage and poisons, hoping there would be enough water to keep it clean carrying everything away the ocean.
Nothing really made the trash go away. It has just been moved, ideally further and further away from taxpayers and voters. As The Times pointed out in 1908, Santa Monica separated garbage that we would now consider recyclable, such as cans and bottles, burning the former and hauling the latter “into gaping arroyos.”
And then… Eureka! The cities’ permanent solution, they figured, was fire—nice, tidy incinerators that made the garbage puke. Castle after castle built supposedly smoke-free municipal burners. LA opened one in 1907 and soon outgrew it. Another was approved by voters in 1947. But across LA County, people who were already openly flaring their garbage in their own yards were beginning to build personal incinerators.
And so LA lived up to the name that Spanish explorer Juan Cabrillo bestowed on it in 1542: “Bay of Smokes”. This smoke came from Native American fires. That smoke came from those backyard incinerators.
Smoke honors no fences. In 1918, a week after the end of World War I, a posh neighborhood pissing match in Pasadena ended when a judge ruled against a cousin of President Woodrow Wilson’s close adviser Edward House and in favor of a scion of the Murphy oil fortune.
House was furious that smoke from the Murphy incinerator covered his roses in ash and wafted a “disgusting” smell into his property. In a separate ruling, the judge found that “anyone can have an incinerator in their backyard to burn garbage,” but that actual burning sparks could not be carried away from the Murphy incinerator along with the smoke.
In 1957, in the famous murder case against L. Ewing Scott for the murder of his wife – one of the first occasions in California that someone was convicted of murder without a body – the jury rummaged in Scott’s backyard incinerator, where investigators had found that it was a woman’s clothing had been burned there.
Over the years, The Times has published guides on how to build and decorate your incinerator.
In 1914 a minister in the town of Tropico – now part of Glendale – received high praise for an incinerator design which “may also be used as a kind of casserole, for boiling beans, etc., and also proves valuable in boiling water.” on laundry days.” In 1932, an Ontario gas station owner received an artful Times review for locating his incinerator in a garden planted with daffodils, geraniums, and verbena, and—to top it all—“the smoke comes out of the little chimney,” who looked like “a plaster pixie with a long beard, a high Santa hat and brightly colored clothes … smoking contentedly on the shore of a small lake.”
When the jury made its trip to Scott’s Bel-Air home, Los Angeles County had just closed all 1.5 million backyard incinerators. Beverly Hills did so the year before, and Whittier was hot on his heels. Despite what this judge told the Pasadena elite, your personal incinerator was everyone’s air pollution. It wasn’t the biggest source of smog – even then, cars and heavy industry carried that responsibility – but a manageable one.
The incinerators disappeared. The garbage doesn’t.
And this is where the serious breakup battle began. After the personal incinerators were extinguished, cities began buying and leasing more landfills. Los Angeles opened one in Toyon Canyon in Griffith Park, which did not close until 1985.
LA voters had voted for municipal garbage collection over private services in 1956, but by 1961 the city was ordering residents to desperately try to slow landfill clogging by separating recyclable metals from the rest of their trash.
That made voters go wild again. They voted out incumbent Mayor Norris Poulson and voted for Sam Yorty, a hoarse-voiced Nebrascan who campaigned for terrible coercion of housewives — forced! – to separate the garbage. Yorty once had an unsuccessful business interest in landfill operation and brokerage, and Poulson dropped delicate hints about organized crime.
But Yorty’s homely appeal to these mentally challenged housewives caught on. Then Mayor Yorty turned his campaign to the city council. It was ugly. It was angry. Two years into Yorty’s tenure, the public found out that failing to separate trash was punishable by a ridiculously harsh six months in prison or a $500 fine — the same penalty for lighting prohibited incinerators.
Yorty made the best of it. He started a “housewives’ revolt”. Breaking the law, he said to Angelenos. Go ahead and throw your rubbish in a single bin and it would make sure they didn’t get penalized.
Finally, in 1964, a war-weary city councilor threw in the towel. One container could rule them all. Still, council members warned that the small savings of a weekly garbage can pickup would cost more in the long run — perhaps even a homeowner’s garbage collection fee. “The Yorty Tax,” one city councilman called it.
You were right. In 1977, the city again started a pilot program for waste separation. And in 1979 came the very first garbage collection fee.
Like now the new state composting law, a 1989 state law forced cities to cut the garbage they dispose of by a quarter by 1993 and by half by the year 2000. In the 1991 LA Times magazine, humorist Harry Shearer recommended painting a “landfill thermometer” on the side of garbage trucks to remind Angelenos how close the city’s garbage dumps were.
After decades of to-and-fro, Los Angeles called for segregation once and for all, as did Santa Monica, Pasadena, and other cities. Mayor Tom Bradley signed into law the new law that declared the 1990s the “Decade of Recycling” and obliged the photographers by tossing a trash can full of glass bottles into a special truck.
With the patchwork of dozens of LA County cities and the back and forth over curbside recycling, it takes some serious homework (and a study of the rules in the lid of your LA trash cans) to keep up with the rules.
The composting law to keep food waste out of landfills creates another patchwork quilt. The state proposes and the network of cities and counties literally decrees. As the saying goes, check local listings.
Fifty and sixty years from now, as far from the here and now as this moment from the big waste sorting skirmish, Angelenos will think we must have had a screw loose because it took so long to ship kitty litter, bottled water and food Waste to different goals to disappear.
So face the fate at the pass with an even crazier idea. We throw away 30% or 40% of all the food we repair. Don’t want to worry about composting? Clean your plate.
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https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-02-01/why-la-trash-doesnt-pile-up-california-composting Why doesn’t LA have garbage heaps everywhere? Many years of struggle