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UCLA Study on Plastic Waste in L.A. County Will Inform Ordinance Research shows that recycling is not a panacea for plastic waste problem and finds that reusable alternatives can be cost-effective

By Colleen Callahan

A new report by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation (LCI) that highlights impacts of plastic production and waste in Los Angeles County will benefit the county in drafting an ordinance addressing plastic waste.

“One of the findings from the report that may surprise Angelenos is that a majority of plastic waste in L.A. County is not currently recycled,” said Gary Gero, the county’s chief sustainability officer. “This is just part of the problem behind the environmental, economic, energy and human-health-related impacts associated with plastic production and waste in L.A. County, which this study clearly reveals.”

The report also analyzes alternative options in food service and singles out single-use plastic food service waste for its outsized representation in litter and its low recycling potential. No facility in L.A. County currently recycles plastic food service ware because of concerns about food contamination and other issues. After a policy change from China in 2018 to limit recyclable waste materials accepted by that country, only #1 and #2 plastics are commonly recycled.

“Fortunately, there are alternatives to plastic containers, cups, straws and ‘sporks’ that make practical and economic sense,” said JR DeShazo, the principal investigator on the study and director of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation. “Solutions are on hand, as the report makes abundantly clear.”

Researchers found that compostable ware can reduce environmental impacts as compared to plastic. But the report also explains that a full transition to compostable ware across the region would need to be approached carefully.

For one, it would require an expansion of the currently limited composting infrastructure in L.A. County. Fortunately, state regulations are in place to mandate this expansion over the next few years and the county is actively working toward meeting those state targets. In addition, a larger transition to compostable ware would require thoughtful consideration of materials in order to select products with a lower lifetime environmental impact as compared to plastic. Compostable products that are 100% fiber-based without chemical treatment produce the best environmental outcome.

No disposable ware can beat the environmental footprint of reusable food service ware, researchers found. Moving to reusables in place of disposables represents a large shift for many food vendors, with higher up-front costs but lower expenditures over time.

The fiscal break-even point for businesses can generally occur within the first year of transition, with direct cost savings for businesses afterward totaling thousands of dollars per year, according to the study.

“It was heartening to see the conclusions related to economic impacts of moving our businesses to more sustainable materials,” Gero said. “It’s also relatively easy for us, as individuals, to do something about it — like bringing our own cups, straws and utensils when we dine at a fast-service type of restaurant.”

In California, 135 cities and counties have adopted ordinances related to single-use plastic reduction. Researchers interviewed officials from eight of those cities, mostly in L.A. County.

The experiences of these jurisdictions indicate that policies restricting plastics have been effective at reducing the adverse impacts of plastic waste with no reported negative economic impacts. These jurisdictions have provided avenues for vendors to claim exemptions for financial hardship, but the rate at which vendors have applied for such exemptions is very low, the study notes.

The Los Angeles County Chief Sustainability Office commissioned the study, per a motion by county supervisors directing the office to contract with UCLA to study the issue of plastic waste, processing, recyclability and alternatives in the county. The motion came after supervisors earlier in 2019 approved the OurCounty Sustainability Plan, a comprehensive approach to help L.A. County transition to a more sustainable future through actions that include plastic waste reduction.  The county plans to release its draft ordinance later in 2020.

 

UCLA Study Helps Californians Save Electricity — and Money — this Summer Participants in UCLA Luskin research effort receive smartphone notifications that help them make smart decisions about electricity usage and avoid peak pricing

Electricity demand fluctuates each day, and consumers who want to unplug during peak times to save money and help the environment now have a new tool at their disposal. Chai Energy, a partner of the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation, is making real-time energy information a reality for electricity consumers who want to reduce or shift their electricity usage during peak periods when electricity is the most expensive.

In a pilot study funded by a California Energy Commission grant of more than $2 million, UCLA is seeking to understand and identify the most effective demand response program designs for different types of households across the state, depending on social characteristics.

“We want to provide a comprehensive tool that will help customers save money while improving grid reliability, reducing pollution during peak hours, and maybe even preventing blackouts” said J.R. DeShazo, director of the Luskin Center for Innovation at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

How does the study work? 

The UCLA researchers have partnered with a clean technology company named Chai Energy. “Chai developed a free smartphone application that displays your home daily electricity consumption and provides you with tips on how to better manage your electricity bill,” DeShazo said. This could include knowing when it makes financial sense to replace an old appliance, or simply what time to use it based on electricity prices. Chai has also developed a gateway device that establishes communication between a participant’s smartphone and the smart-meter already installed in his house, allowing users to see real-time energy consumption by individual household appliances.

The UCLA Luskin Center is delivering and testing messages designed to inform Californians about their electricity consumption and provide tips for reducing it. About 10,000 Californians are expected to download the app and participate in the study.

“This large sample will enable researchers to identify the most effective format, timing and content of messages,” said Julien Gattaciecca, project manager and one of the researchers.

How can Californians participate?

The free Chai Energy application can be found by searching for Chai Energy in android or IOS app stores or by visiting chaienergy.com. Those who install the app are automatically enrolled in the study. A free Chai gateway device with a market value of $75 is being randomly distributed to 5,000 participants.

The study is currently available only for customers of Pacific Gas & Electricity (PG&E), Southern California Edison (SCE), and San Diego Gas & Electricity (SDG&E).

 

Luskin Center and the Chai Energy App from UCLA Luskin on Vimeo.

The video is also available on YouTube.

Save Every Drop While We Still Can International water expert Brian Richter joins California government officials for a panel at UCLA Luskin that stresses urgent need to conserve in an increasingly drought-plagued world

By Aaron Julian

“Every Californian should think about water the same way they think about electricity — you just don’t waste it.”

This sentiment expressed by Debbie Franco of the California Governor’s Office of Planning and Research is typical of the conservation advice offered by a panel of water experts during a Feb. 22, 2017, presentation at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

Spearheading the discussion was Brian Richter, an adjunct professor at the University of Virginia and author of the book “Chasing Water.” Richter outlined the historical relationship between humanity and water. He also explained his ideas to formulate a “water market” that would monetarily encourage responsible water usage on the personal, industrial and governmental levels.

“Disruption needs to happen more on the governmental level,” said Richter about the best approach to lessen overuse and foster more cooperation between city, local and state governments regarding an ongoing world water crisis. An example of intergovernmental partnerships is San Diego’s annual $60-million investment to encourage smarter water use by farmers in the Imperial Irrigation District in return for access to a third of the city’s water supply.

The Luskin Center for Innovation’s Greg Pierce led a question and answer session with the panelists regarding water conservation policy. Photo by Les Dunseith

Water is especially important for California governments and residents in light of the historic drought affecting the region. During a question and answer session led by the Luskin Center for Innovation’s Greg Pierce MA U.P. ’11 UP PhD ’15, panelists discussed how to keep momentum toward sustainable water systems despite recent downpours estimated at about 19 total inches of rain — equal to about 27 billion gallons of water.

Franco argued that the solution to the water issue needs to go beyond collaborative government — it has to become a way of life.

“One of the key elements that we are missing in California are folks that understand water,” she said. “We need people to feel like they are water managers in their own home. That’s an important first step toward a thriving and active participation in local government.”

She said such participation helps propel effective action at all levels. Richter added that “77 percent of all Americans have absolutely no idea where their water comes from.”

He noted a core argument of his book, that in order to have a fully active and informed citizenry, the science and policy communities need to fully understand water themselves.

Panelist Liz Crosson from the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office told the large crowd that attended the session that Los Angeles has instituted a Save the Drop campaign in partnership with the mayor’s fund, working to reach a 20 percent reduction from the 103 gallon per day of water usage per capita in the city. Even if successful, that mark is well short of Australia’s average of 50 gallons per day as noted by Richter in his book and lecture.

The city’s plan involves combating water illiteracy in combination with incentives and restrictions on water use. The city has also updated its rate structure to be more compatible with different socioeconomic brackets.

Still, Crosson warned, “Here in L.A., just because it is raining does not mean our water supply is in much better shape. We are trying to change that, but that’s a long time coming. This is now about a Californian way of life.”

Panelist Angela George of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works said she believes the most effective methodology would be a campaign to instill in children the techniques and habits of water conservation. “It is important to get into our schools and educate where our water comes from — a local perspective.”

Amid a crowd that included UCLA Luskin students and faculty as well as interested members of the community, passions sometimes ran high, with some questioning whether current efforts and ideas are sufficient to truly improve water conservation.

Panelists noted the importance of individuals working closely with local government in order to push for reforms they want to see.

“You have to find out how to mobilize the political wherewithal,” Franco said. “Show up and know what’s going on, and keep telling what you want.”

The lecture and panel discussion were put together by the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation in partnership with Island Press as part of a speaker series known as Luskin Innovators.