What are the components that make up an effective environmental program?

Government-administered environmental programs are launched in response to legislation such as the seminal, 1970 Clean Water Act (CWA). While the stated purpose of the CWA is clear:

It is the national goal that the discharge of pollutants into the navigable waters be eliminated by 1985.

That wonderfully succinct and explicit goal resulted in a mountain of legislation and requirements that now must be carried out down to the local level. When we are doing our best to meet legal requirements, it’s easy to lose sight of that original goal, so let’s take a step back and look at the components that make up an effective environmental program.

In California, there are both old and new laws governing solid waste and recycling. Assembly Bill (AB) 1826 and Senate Bill (SB) 1383 mandate commercial recycling and food waste composting for both municipalities and businesses. AB827 poses even stricter new new mandates for businesses starting in 2020.

For small municipalities trying to keep up with this framework and bearing the responsibility for their implementation in their City/County and at commercial facilities can be difficult. Businesses are also having a hard time keeping up with the legislation. Finding the right haulers and partners that do things the right way can be challenging.

1. Understand the regulatory framework and keep your knowledge up to date

Compliance touches every industry and has become a vital part of operations and the constantly evolving regulatory landscape makes compliance a moving target. Organizations such as the CA Stormwater Quality Association (CASQA) and RethinkWaste.org can provide guidance and resources such as handbooks, to help navigate complex regulatory requirements. They also keep up on the latest legislative changes and milestones and will alert you, so that your responses can be thoughtful and proactive.

2. Find and implement creative, relevant solutions

Usually, the Public Outreach section is going to allow more leeway for solutions tailored to the needs of your agency or region than a section outlining monitoring requirements. Look for the local angle: do you have a pollution hotspot, such as a river that runs behind several industrial sites? What is the interaction between those sites and the river? Is there a prized, local feature like a beach or a lake, that could become the focus of your outreach efforts? Is there an organization that is already spearheading litter abatement? Partner with them. If you can leverage sites of local interest and the organizations already working to protect them, your outreach efforts will go farther.

3. Make changes or take actions that will make the most difference and combine efforts where it makes sense and can save time and effort.

What will it take for people to embrace a change? Frequently, raising awareness is enough, but in other cases an enforcement mechanism may be required. For example, many local governments have opted to enact pet waste ordinances, because public outreach efforts didn’t go far enough to reduce uncollected waste.

Sometimes, doing outreach to businesses for both water quality and solid waste management at the same time can alleviate burdens for both the municipality and the business. EI did this for a municipal client and the outreach/enforcement was easier when combined.

4. Establish a metric for success

Many regulations include requirements for measuring the effectiveness of program efforts, but the “one size fits all” language typically found in compliance requirements may not result in effective solutions for your agency or region. How can you spur changes in behavior that will be a win for the environment? Some have had great success with community-based social marketing initiatives. One such program, aimed at improving air quality, instituted a gasoline-powered lawn mower buy-back program that also offered rebates for electric and push mowers. The measure of success in this case was both public participation and corresponding emissions reductions.

5. Start with a solid framework

If you’re having trouble getting traction and need a framework for program implementation, check out agencies that have been recognized for their success. The City of Santa Monica is known for its creative approach to water treatment and conservation, while the City of Marina hosts a state-of-the-art Materials Recovery Facility. Many innovators are proud of their programs and will give tours or provide information about how they achieved success. Sometimes a site visit can yield the information or inspiration you need to get over a particular, regulatory hurdle.

Utilizing a data tracking tool can be helpful in reporting compliance to state and local regulators. There are ready-built resources such as Recyclist or WaterTrax but if licensing costs are a barrier, it is fairly easy to develop a cost-effective tracking mechanism for a smaller municipality using a combination of web-based forms and reporting spreadsheets. We’ve done this for our clients. Contact us for a no-fee consultation if you’re interested in exploring this option.

6. Do more than just comply with regulations

If you’d like to move beyond compliance and investigate opportunities to green your agency’s facilities or include a social justice component in your program, consider undergoing a Sustainability Audit or obtaining a Green Certification. Engaging with groups active in the environmental social justice movement could also help. Partnering with such a group could give you the roadmap you’ll need to implement CalRecycle’s new food recovery requirements, effective in Jan 2022, in a way that will more effectively benefit those who most need access to healthy food.