San Diego trash, landfill habits reexamined amid climate concerns

About Inside America’s Finest City: In this series, FOX 5 highlights some of San Diego’s nagging issues and what’s being done about them.

SAN DIEGO – Our beautiful city has a dirty secret.

With a population of more than 1.4 million people, San Diego generates nearly 1.6 million tons of trash per year, according to city data. Roughly 55% of that goes to the Miramar Landfill, but not every piece of garbage ends up where it belongs.

“Mainly, we see a lot of household items,” said Shawn Rizzuto, division chief for maintenance in district 11. Refrigerators, all different sizes of refrigerators, doors, refrigerator doors, you know, tables, chairs, couches.”

Every day, Caltrans crews with district 11 pick up trash along nearly 4,000 lane miles of freeway. They call the problematic spots “significant trash generating areas.”

“You’ve got to get above Del Mar and then we start seeing a lot more trash being deposited on the highways,” Rizzuto said. “If we look at (state Route) 52 and around Convoy (Street), there’s a landfill there and (state Route) 94, there’s a transfer station, so we see a lot of trash and debris being deposited on the highway. Also down on 995, we see some (Interstate) 805 from the border or the split to the merge back to (Interstate) 5.”

He said litter on roadways worsened at the height of the pandemic and these bad habits continue to pile up.

“It remains a systemic problem,” he said. “It’s really about education for the public. But you know, if you’re hauling a low your refuge to the landfill. Tarp your load, secure your loads.”

From our freeways to our beaches, remnants of plastic and Styrofoam are embedded in our environment. 

“It’s not like everyone’s a litterbug. That’s not what it’s about,” said Mitch Silverstein of the Surfrider Foundation. “It’s just that if we’re dumping this much disposed of all plastic waste into the world, it’s just no question that a lot of it’s going to end up in our environment and in our ocean.”

At the current disposal rate, the Miramar landfill will max out by 2025. Currently, it’s 82% full.

The next option would be hauling the majority of trash to the Sycamore Landfill just off the state Route 52, west of Santee. Sycamore Landfill is 33% full and is permitted to accept trash until 2042.

City officials are working to increase the height limit and implement a new statewide organic waste law locally which should keep operations at Miramar going until 2028.

“The landfill is permitted to operate through 2031. However, recently we’ve implemented a state Senate Bill 1383 which should have some positive impacts on the Miramar Landfill,” said Matthew Cleary, the city’s assistant director of environmental services. “SB 1383 requires the reduction of organic waste disposed to landfills. That’s food scraps, food, salt paper from kitchens and food operations, yard waste and wood waste. And these materials make up approximately 39% of what San Diego is currently throwing away.”

Cleary adds, “Diverting this material from the landfill will not only extend the life, but will reduce methane emitted from the landfill, which is believed to be contributing to climate change.”

The other option would be hauling our trash out of the county.

“It’s obviously going to cost more to transport and it’s going to increase costs to those residents that pay in the city of San Diego,” Cleary said.

Once Miramar Landfill reaches the allowed capacity, Cleary said the city plans to use the land as an organic waste processing facility. The organic scraps collected from residents will be turned into mulch and soil and then be used to replenish local soil at parks and other areas.

In order to beat climate change, experts say we have to change our habits if we want to keep California and San Diego clean. 

Environmental leaders believe it can be as easy as learning where to put certain items of trash. The city’s website outlines acceptable items to throw away, recycle and compost.

“I would really ask everyone to just be a little more conscious of how much single-use plastic is in our lives and do what you can to reduce it. You know, that can be as simple as stop buying plastic water bottles and start using a reusable one,” Silverstein said.

Environmental organizations like the Surfrider Foundation San Diego County hosts beach cleanups every month.

Click here for how to volunteer or sponsor your own cleanup event.