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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.

 

Justice — and Smog Checks — for All New UCLA Center for Innovation study finds that the Tune In & Tune Up smog repair program in the San Joaquin Valley efficiently tackles pollution and poverty

By Colleen Callahan

A 34-year-old mother dropped out of college in San Francisco due to mobility issues.

A young couple with four children walked to get around when their vehicles broke down.

A homeless woman relied on her car for both housing and travel purposes.

These are just a few of the more than 40,000 individuals who have benefited over the past four years from the San Joaquin Valley’s smog test and vehicle repair program known as Tune In & Tune Up.

A new study from the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation analyzed Tune In & Tune Up data and finds that this program, which has been operating since 2005, is pioneering a model that other regions could use to efficiently reduce emissions from cars and other light-duty vehicles while achieving equity objectives. It is one of the first transportation programs in the nation premised on jointly achieving efficiency, equity and environmental objectives. That it exists to serve residents in the San Joaquin Valley is only more critical given that this eight-county region has disproportionately high levels of pollution and poverty compared to the rest of the state.

Tune in & Tune Up is a program of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District funded by enhanced vehicle registration fees and implemented by a nonprofit organization, Valley Clean Air Now (Valley CAN). The program provides free smog checks for residents of the valley. Owners of vehicles that do not pass emission tests receive vouchers redeemable for up to $850 in smog repairs.

UCLA evaluated the program with regard to efficiency, equity and environmental objectives.

“Tune In & Tune Up operates efficiently, in part by keeping attrition low and passing funds to a high level of program participants,” said Gregory Pierce MURP ’11 PhD UP ’15, co-author of the study and associate director of research at the UCLA Luskin Center for Innovation.

Analysis of previously unexplored data by Pierce and Rachel Connolly, who will be pursuing her Ph.D. in public health at UCLA in the fall, found that Valley CAN recorded 41,688 unique attendees at its Tune In & Tune Up events since 2012. Of vehicle owners offered a voucher, the vast majority (78 percent) redeemed their vouchers at a smog repair shop. This resulted in the program providing over $12 million in direct financing for smog repairs to more than 20,000 qualified residents of the valley since 2012. This equates to about $2.7 million allocated annually to 4,500 annual customers.

Residents from nearly every neighborhood in the San Joaquin Valley (97 percent of all census tracts) attended a Tune In & Tune Up event. Researchers equate that very high level of engagement to the wide reach of the events — several events were held in each county several times per year — and effective outreach. Valley CAN partners with community-based organizations, local radio stations and newspapers to spread the word about the program in multiple languages and in multiple neighborhoods throughout the valley.

“Tune In & Tune Up is the largest program in the state to offer light-duty transportation assistance to a substantial number of low-income households through a grassroots approach,” Pierce said.

Researchers found that while the program is equal opportunity, the program distributed the most financial benefits to neighborhoods most in need within the valley. The study concluded that the program successfully targeted communities with lower incomes, higher percentages of minority households and higher levels of cumulative pollution threats than the regional average.

The program also successfully targeted vehicles most likely to be high emitters, according to researchers. The study found that the vehicles reached by the Tune In & Tune Up program are much older, have higher odometer readings and are more often unregistered than the average for the state’s overall fleet of light-duty vehicles.

“This is important because older vehicles emit a disproportionate amount of smog-forming pollution linked to asthma and other respiratory diseases. Yet many low-income residents of the valley have no choice but to drive old vehicles because they live in rural areas with limited or no access to public transit,” Pierce said.

In addition to receiving smog checks and vehicle repair vouchers, attendees of Tune In & Tune Up events also learn about additional opportunities such as incentives worth thousands of dollars that are available for low-income Californians who voluntarily scrap their older, high-emitting cars and replace them with newer, cleaner and more fuel-efficient cars.

“Tune In & Tune Up should be considered as a complementary approach to meeting air quality standards in low- or moderate-density regions throughout the U.S. where the built environment does not allow for the cost-effective build out of a full-serve transit network or where financing for zero-emission vehicles is constrained,” the researchers noted in the study.

The researchers concluded that features of the Tune In & Tune Up program can serve as potentially replicable models for supporting the type of social and environmental justice objectives increasingly expected by many policymakers and residents of California.