San Juan Capistrano's recycling success story

Ziad Mazboudi, P.E., CPSWQ
Senior Civil Engineer/Environmental Division Manager
City of San Juan Capistrano, California
Member, APWA Solid Waste Management Committee

I started working for the City of San Juan Capistrano in February 2002. As a Senior Civil Engineer in charge of the Stormwater Program, I never thought that I would end up learning so much about trash and recycling, or that there was so much to learn.

Two years into my employment in San Juan Capistrano, I realized that I was regularly dealing with trash-related issues. Those issues included working on preventing trash from reaching the creeks and educating the public on recycling plastic bottles rather than throwing them in the trash. I found myself knocking on the door of the solid waste manager fairly often, asking him information about solid waste or informing him of an educational article I was writing about recycling. After a while the manager asked if I would take it over, and that is how it all started. I knew nothing about diversion rates, landfill issues, plastic numbers, or recycling markets. The most important issue at the time was that the City's diversion rate was only 30%. If a diversion rate of 50% wasn't met, as required by California Assembly Bill AB939, the City could have been fined.

That information was a wake-up call for me, as we needed to think smart about how to gain +/- 20% diversion points. In addition, I cared about the environment, so I wasn't just thinking about the diversions; I wanted to "do it right." I took the same approach to solid waste and recycling as the one I took in dealing with what I believe is a successful stormwater program in San Juan Capistrano: education, education, education.

So, I educated at every opportunity. Through local newspaper articles, presentations to the local chamber of commerce and rotary club, and working with the local schools, I put the words out there about recycling. I soon discovered that more than just recycling soda cans, water bottles and office paper was going to be required to meet the diversion rate; I needed to think outside the box.

San Juan Capistrano, besides being known for its "Annual Return of the Swallows," is the largest equestrian community in South Orange County, California. The city houses about 3,000 horses in 13.5 square miles, and there are about ten stables in town. If you know anything about horses, you know that they generate manure, regularly, and in large volume. The first order of business was to round up all the manure from all the stables and divert it. Fortunately, diverting manure is an easy task, as there is a demand for a possible end product called compost. To help increase the demand, the public was educated on the benefits of compost. Composting is a great way to reduce urban runoff. It reduces weeds so there is less need for weedkillers that could end up in the gutter.

I started a home-composting class by partnering with the University of California Extension Programs and its Master Gardeners. You get the picture—the benefits of composting were shown to the public to encourage its use and to increase the need for compost, so that the distributor would keep wanting the manure. One might think that a small city like ours wouldn't make a dent in the large-demand picture, but you would be surprised how fast environmentally-friendly news travels and the ripple effect it can make. To put things in perspective, as far as the manure diversion's impact, the total diverted manure in 2006 was 17,000 tons compared to all of the commercial diversions (recyclables) of 1,800 tons. As you can see, the impact is significant.

When a city is in a county where landfill tipping fees are cheaper than recycling, a city has to take drastic measures to "encourage" or "persuade" people to recycle. This includes construction and demolition material recycling. The City adopted a construction and demolition recycling ordinance that requires all new development, with a few exceptions, to recycle a minimum of 50% of their construction material or risk the loss of a deposit. After two years of adopting the ordinance and lots of education, the construction and demolition recycling program diverted about 68% in 2006. This was a great success story of which the City is very proud.

Sometimes it's not just about the diversion numbers, but about doing the right thing. In March 2005, the City of San Juan Capistrano started the first citywide curbside plastic bag recycling program in the nation. This program—a public/private partnership to remove a product from the landfill, saving natural resources and preventing a pollutant from reaching the city's creeks—was a great success. Plastic bags were among the most found items during the annual creek cleanup event, so removing them from the waste stream served two purposes. The City partnered with a plastic bag manufacturer, Hilex Poly, and the City's solid waste franchisee, CR&R, to make this program work. As the cost of plastic is high, capturing plastic bags and reusing them vs. using new plastic is economically attractive, so the manufacturers were interested. For the hauler, finding a market is usually the biggest challenge. We educated the public on how to capture the bags and they reacted positively. The key to success was simplicity: "Place all your plastic bags in a plastic bag, then place it in the recycling container." Simple enough to make it so attractive that eight neighboring cities rolled out the same program within months of San Juan Capistrano's launch.

Another successful equestrian recycling program was introduced this year—horseshoe recycling. Horses need their shoes replaced every 6-8 weeks. So, you have about 3,000 horses with four legs each and do the math—that's a lot of horseshoes. At about one pound each, that's a lot of metal going to the landfill. A program was born connecting the stable owners with a steel recycler, who provided containers to place the shoes in for regular pickup, and money in return.

Finally, the City partnered with 2nd Harvest Food Bank to promote food recycling by asking local food facilities and residents to donate food during the holidays, and year-round. A lot of leftover food from events is thrown in the trash, while it can be used. This project eliminates a lot of "heavy" food waste from the landfill and feeds a lot of hungry people.

The success story of recycling in San Juan Capistrano was to understand what material is available, educate the public, look for the opportunities, and make them happen.

Ziad Mazboudi can be reached at (949) 234-4413 or