Building on Bedrock
Updated: Sep 12
An Open Letter To Los Angeles
Los Angeles is a city of romanticism and dreams. We’re often reminded of this in it’s most popular medium: television and movies. It’s also oft repeated in literature, news articles, and in the imagination of the collective unconscious.
I’ve lived in Los Angeles for four years, after having transplanted from Portland, OR. Ironically, Hollywood coming to Portland had a lot to do with my choice to relocate. A certain popular comedy television show that shares its name with the iconically rainy city had sensationalized my sleepy town as a haven for young, hip folks to come and thrive.
Now, having grown up in Oregon, I was taught about recycling from 4th grade onward. There wasn’t a classroom or common area that didn’t have bins for bottles and cans, paper and cardboard. As I progressed through school, more information came my way. Reduction of plastic waste, evaluating your carbon footprint, and a host of other practical tools and practices that individuals can apply on a daily basis.
So, it was with a level of sticker shock that when I took up residence in my one bedroom Koreatown apartment, I found that most of my neighbors weren’t using the communal recycling bin at all. Instead the garbage can was peppered with cans, papers, detergent bottles, and cardboard. Admittedly, there were some items taking up space in the large blue bin. Discarded electronics, clothing & shoes, shelves. None of which are acceptable recyclable materials for the city’s waste management services.
Now seems an appropriate time to discuss my history with the idea of sustainability. We’ve established that growing up in Oregon, recycling was encoded into my DNA from a young age. But, after college, I worked as a touring actor for an educational theatre company that produced shows for K-8 students. These ranged in topics from electrical safety, to renewable energy, to (yes) sustainability. Nothing forces you to examine your lifestyle choices more than spouting facts about reducing waste, lowering your carbon footprint, and remembering to recycle to a bunch of 5th graders. How can I expect them to not only absorb the information, but to put it into practice if I’m not willing to?
So, back to the situation at my L.A. apartment building. Images of trash bins filled with thousands of pounds of recyclable materials filtered through my imagination because L.A. is an enormous city. I decided to take action. I called the waste management offices, was rerouted to a couple different places, before I finally connected with the folks at the Multi-Family Recycling Program. After explaining the situation to them, they informed me that they had informational packets and flyers that they could send to my building, but that they needed permission from a property manager to send them (what?). I followed this up by asking what sort of public education programs they had in place to inform the community. I was told that they have a once monthly informational public forum that any are welcome to attend. I pointed out to them that the only problem with that was that only people who actively take an interest would even have a possibility of discovering that. The response was essentially a, “Well, what can you do?”
I got permission from the property manager, distributed the flyers to my neighbors, and posted some around the property. I’m pleased to say that recycling took a definite uptick, but there were still the occasional sneakers or cd players tossed in as well.
From there I focused my energies on the situation at the K-8 charter school where I found employment. I’m sure we can all remember our elementary and middle school teachers hovering laboriously over a copy machine, and the hundreds of sheets of paper that were handed to students on a weekly basis. I was horrified to discover that the school at which I was employed had no recycling services whatsoever. In addition to all of that paper, any bottles or cans, any cardboard, any recyclable materials were tossed in the trash and thereafter the landfill.
The process I had to go through to get recycling services at my campus was tedious and almost laughable. It took nearly a year and a half. Then I had to start the endeavor of educating students, teachers, and families. I met with limited success. I can explain the steps and the importance, but helping people to care is a much more difficult labor.
So, in my four years in Los Angeles, I’ve tried to make a difference in whatever small way that I’m able to. In a place that claims to be a leader in green initiatives and technologies, why does the vast majority of the population seem to have no working knowledge of sustainability best practices? And worse yet, why do they seem not to care?
Two days ago parts of Los Angeles saw record high heat of 120 degrees. Today, (very) early season snowstorms are expected in Colorado and New Mexico. We are seeing the effects of climate change almost daily.
Like with most things, education is the silver bullet. We’ve been hearing this for decades, and yet many aspects of our educational system remain deficient, so lacking in so many areas. To say nothing of adult and community education.
I’m speaking directly to the residents of this place of romanticism and dreams (of which I now count myself one): we have to do better. We need to create policies and practices that help to educate the public on the necessity of sustainability, from corporations to individuals. I encourage you to write to your representatives, your city officials, your mayor. Ask for more legislation and initiatives that address these issues. Things as simple as plastic items labeled 1-7 are recyclable in the blue bins (1). When I say 'educate' I mean more than posting this information on a website that needs to be sought out. There's a ton of billboard space in L.A. Could we use some of that? Could commercials be used? Could we see some educational programming for schools?
As I said before, L.A. is an enormous city. So any policies or initiatives will take a lot of work and comprehensive planning. I am not disillusioned about the scope of such change. But, we have to do more. The evidence is abundant and everywhere we look. All of us. And sometimes people just don’t know any better until they learn a little better.