Closing the Gaps in Los Angeles’s Municipal Waste Management System by Learning from Pacoima’s Community-led Responses

Suzanne Caflisch, Irene Takako Farr, and Cassie Hoeprich, MPA, Urban and Regional Planning, Luskin School of Public Affairs, University of California, Los Angeles


Waste management is an essential and robust function of the City of Los Angeles. However, it is often an under-recognized public service. The City’s formal waste management system, which falls under the responsibility of the Los Angeles Sanitation Department (LASAN), exists quietly alongside other essential public service provisions such as water and transportation infrastructure, public housing, and public education systems. Waste management, including infrastructure and services, varies in its degree of efficacy across Los Angeles communities. In many neighborhoods, municipal waste management services are insufficient. Moreover, rhetoric of “self-help” and “individual responsibility” has historically accompanied state withdrawal from public service delivery, with responsibility for public services assigned to communities themselves. As a result, informal waste management responses have emerged in Los Angeles neighborhoods, spurred by frustrated community members. These responses range from unsanctioned community cleanups and beautification efforts to illegal dumping of refuse in public space. In short, when the LASAN fails to meet the waste needs of communities, it exposes the gaps between community needs and services, and in turn, spurs a range of informal solutions to waste management.

This paper focuses on a distinct Los Angeles neighborhood, Pacoima, as a case study for waste management challenges. Pacoima is a neighborhood in the northeastern part of Los Angeles with a largely low-income Latinx population. The way in which gaps in government-run, or formal, waste management systems materialize in this community is unique, as are the ensuing informal responses.

Throughout this paper, an examination of Pacoima’s waste-related challenges and the community’s responses will be guided by the following inquiry: How does the waste management system in Los Angeles operate to meet the needs of politically and economically marginalized communities? How are the varying “gaps” in the City’s formal waste management met with informal solutions? How do these informal responses manifest in collaboration with, or opposition to, formal systems?

The paper concludes with a set of recommendations for municipalities across the United States as well as specific recommendations for the City of Los Angeles in terms of its approach to waste management in largely minority communities. In summary, these recommendations implore the city to reassess the manner in which it receives and incorporates community feedback and encourages waste management departments to look at the root of waste problems and spend less time focusing on solving the aesthetic of waste. Perhaps most important of all, this paper encourages the City of Los Angeles and other municipalities to consider the larger picture of systemic injustice in these neighborhoods. The perennial accumulation of waste and community-identified waste management shortcomings that disproportionately impact neighborhoods like Pacoima are symptoms of a much larger problem of government negligence.

Theorizing “Waste” and the Wasteland

When examining waste management in an urban setting, the theoretical foundations of the concept of waste are important to assess, particularly its etymological connection to place. Several scholars, including Sabine Barles, Mary Douglas, and Ananya Roy, have theorized about the symbology of waste and its implications for urban space.

In her essay “History of Waste Management and the Social and Cultural Representations of Waste,” Sabine Barles offers a number of definitions for the concept of waste, ranging from “themes of loss and uselessness” to the literal materials and matter of waste. Barles points out the spatial dimensions of this term, noting that the term was originally used to depict a “desolate, ruined, or neglected region,” aptly connoting a wasteland. She goes on to elaborate on literal waste observed in urban environments and reiterates the connection between waste and place: “the history of waste mirrors that of the societies that produced it, and their relationship with the environment and the resources they mobilized in the process” (Barles 2014, 199).

The notion of wasteland also builds from the work of the anthropologist Mary Douglas, whose landmark text Purity and Danger posits that ideas of purity and impurity are culturally constructed, morally significant concepts that allow societies to rule anomalies to be “matter out of place” (Douglas 2003). Both Barles and Douglas make a strong case for the conceptual linkage of waste and space, especially where it concerns the literal dirt and hazardous material that characterize the streets and public arenas of neighborhoods such as Pacoima.

Finally, Ananya Roy addresses the aesthetics of the wasteland, by connecting the policies and urban design in a place to perceptions of poverty or neglect. In her article “Urban Informality: Toward an Epistemology of Planning,” Roy introduces the concept of aestheticization of poverty, which summarizes how policymakers often focus attention on the physical environment, thereby engaging in “aesthetic upgrading, rather than the upgrading of livelihoods, wages, political capacities”. Likening aesthetic upgrading to moving chairs around on the deck of the sinking Titanic, Roy notes that “the issue at stake here is not simply the limits of upgrading strategies but rather the question of who sets the upgrading agenda” (Roy 2005, 150). What is the value of physical and aesthetic improvements in the face of marginalization, economic exclusion, and social stigma? From the analysis of Barles, Douglas, and Roy, we see that waste is both a physical problem in and of itself and a symbol of a larger story of public neglect and exclusion.

Situating Pacoima, a “Vulnerable Community” of Los Angeles

Pacoima is a community of roughly 75,500 individuals and 16,700 households in the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles (Holland 2019). The community was once one of the only Los Angeles suburbs to allow African Americans home ownership during the time of racial covenants, and largely expanded in built form from the 1940s as a result (Holland 2019; Architectural Resources Group 2014). Today, the racial composition of Pacoima is predominantly Latinx at 84%. Around 45% of the population is foreign born, and 26% of the population report that they cannot speak English well or at all (City Data 2016). The household median income of the community is $54,596, which is 9% less than the average for the City of Los Angeles average of $60,197 and 18% less than the state’s average of $67,739 (City Data 2016; 2017). Almost one-quarter of the community lives in poverty. Housing conditions reflect this poverty as 20% of residents live in garages or rental rooms in single-family homes (Maida 2009, 15).

These socio-economic vulnerabilities can be traced back to Pacoima’s historical transformation from an industrial and manufacturing hub during World War II to a commercially-blighted neighborhood following the adoption of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA removed trade barriers between the US, Mexico, and Canada, inciting factories to abandon Pacoima in favor of cheaper facilities and labor across the US-Mexico border. This tectonic shift decimated employment opportunities for the predominantly African American workers in Pacoima and throughout the greater region. NAFTA also impacted the value of homes in Pacoima as the staggering job losses led to substantial displacement of the African American families that relied on the steady work of industrial and manufacturing jobs prior to NAFTA. In the years to follow, Pacoima’s newly-inexpensive housing attracted Latinx immigrants, who seized on the depreciated rental and housing market (Maida 2009, 15–16; 2008, 189).

Coupled with evident sociodemographic marginalities, the material conditions of ‘dirtiness’ have taken on greater significance to characterize—and stigmatize—Pacoima. In this context, what is “out of place” is no longer merely dirt, or waste on the street: the communities themselves and the residents that compose them are “out of place”. Thus, examining community efforts to address the LASAN’s limited response offers a window into the larger struggle for social and economic inclusion in Los Angeles and the continued fight for integration and dignity.

Overview of Los Angeles’ Waste Management System

Municipal waste management involves the collection, separation, disposal, and recycling of by-products from commercial and domestic activities. Waste management is largely seen as a function of the local municipal government, which often contract support from private companies that specialize in waste collection, processing and disposal. Standard classifications of waste include organic waste, recyclable waste, landfill waste, hazardous waste, and construction and demolition waste. Each material type requires separate collection, handling and processing. In Los Angeles, waste management has evolved substantially over the last century due to public health advances and new recycling technologies. Specifically, recycling improvements increased capacity to process the recycling of inorganic materials made of plastic, paper and glass; the composting of organic matter like lawn trimmings and food scraps; and bulky item pick-ups (e.g. disposal of mattresses, furniture, and appliances).

LASAN is responsible for waste management for Los Angeles’s four million residents. LASAN states that their primary function is to “collect, clean and recycle solid and liquid waste generated by residential, commercial and industrial users in the City of Los Angeles and surrounding communities” (LA Sanitation 2020). However, in practice, the waste system in Los Angeles is very complex, and the agency is largely dependent on private partnerships to execute waste collection, processing and disposal. The department does, however, coordinate waste removal services for all homes within the city that consist of four units or less. On an average day, the department serves more than 750,000 homes and collects over 6,500 tons of waste, including refuse, recyclables, yard trimmings, horse manure, and bulky items through approximately 2,800 dedicated professional, technical, administrative, craft, clerical and service personnel (LA Sanitation 2020). LASAN therefore categorically protects public health and the environment, and strives to enhance the quality of life for all neighborhoods in the City of Los Angeles.

LASAN also oversees recycLA, a program initiated in 2017 that orchestrates waste collection services for all businesses and large multifamily dwellings in Los Angeles. Through recycLA, LASAN has awarded seven different private waste hauling contracts within eleven distinct zones across the City. The program privatizes waste services, mandates landfill and recycling services for all customers, and establishes set disposal costs levied directly on consumers for the volume of waste collected (City of Los Angeles 2020c).LASAN’s partnerships extend to individual City funded contracts with outside entities that have the capacity to perform cleaning services (Winfrey 2020).

Gaps in the Current Waste Management System

Despite the robust network of services and public-private partnerships, the current waste management system in Los Angeles is unable to adequately and equitably address all waste management needs. This inability disproportionately impacts marginalized residents and historically dispossessed communities. In Pacoima, one explanation for the City’s history of negligence towards its marginalized residents is due to its lack of “social capital”. Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu argues that social capital is “constituted by social networks and relationships”, yet is “never disconnected from financial capital”. In other words, social capital captures both the social networks in which an individual is embedded, as well as the material outcomes of these social relationships. By cleaving apart these concepts—social connectedness and economic status—Bourdieu draws the eye to “social networks that might be very dense, but nonetheless unable to generate resources because of lack of access to capital” (DeFilippis 2001, 783–85). Pacoima may boast deeply embedded networks of social relationships, but this quality alone does not determine material community conditions and access to adequate infrastructure.[1] Instead, it is access to capital that determines the trajectory of a community’s economic development, environmental well-being, and overall quality of life. Theories of social capital shed light on why affluent Los Angeles communities receive adequate or exceptional public waste management service, while historically impoverished, non-white communities like Pacoima are expected to cope with piles of dumped waste, unattended litter, and other longstanding forms of toxic refuse.

Gaps in the Los Angeles waste management system emerge from counterintuitive, top-down responses to waste management that do not address the root causes of waste generation or community-wide needs. The structure of decision making constitutes a substantial cause of these gaps. Typically, government-driven, or formal, solutions are not born out of the community, or the people who experience waste most viscerally. These solutions are often envisioned outside of the context of a particular community and are designed to adhere to grand, sweeping visions for civic cleanliness (“Clean Streets LA” 2020). In other words, these formal solutions often reflect the visions of career bureaucrats and elected officials. As a result, these solutions stand to ignore the nuance of a community’s waste management needs, and perhaps more importantly, they ignore the larger picture of community needs that indirectly contribute to waste management challenges.

Gaps in the waste management system are also perpetuated by an over-reliance on community-based solutions as a supplement to formal infrastructure. This phenomenon is diametrically opposed to the previous gap identified with top-down solutions, and it bears echoes of community self-help tactics championed by austerity-embracing governments in the 1990s. In the midst of eroding public support and social services in Los Angeles, poor and low-income communities are characterized as “heroic entrepreneurs” as they turn to individual entrepreneurialism for essential waste management services. In essence, this trend speaks to a chronic dysfunction between the public and public institutions. The plethora of community-based projects and nonprofits that have formed across Los Angeles to address cleanliness challenges is evidence of this “heroic entrepreneurialism” (Roy 2005). Examples include volunteer river or beach cleanups, gardening projects, and other community beautification events. While such activities may appear to be desirable interventions to address the “gap” left by top-down solutions, these community-based responses often manifest as short-term interventions that only partly supplement inadequate public infrastructure and services. This paper does not intend to assert that these actions are unproductive, or that they should not exist. Rather, the paper argues that over-reliance on community members to address dysfunction in the waste management system is an inadequate response to infrastructural deficiency, and formal systems must take greater responsibility for addressing community needs.

Distinguishing Criteria for Formal and Informal Waste Management Responses

Defining “informal” and “formal” responses to waste management is not a strict binary. There are some obvious examples of purely formal waste management, such as LASAN services, and purely informal waste management, such as a group of neighbors cleaning a street or park without any approval or remuneration from the local municipality. Above all, formal responses and the systems they are born out of are ultimately responsible for enabling and ensuring the success of waste management, whereas informal solutions are in response to deficiencies. In order to more finely differentiate between these two modes, this report presents two technical pieces of criteria to distinguish between informal and formal waste management.

Status of Employment

The first set of criteria for the process of determining informal versus formal response is by looking at the status of employment of an individual or group performing waste management.This means understanding whether an individual or group is employed by the government or an outside organization. For example, if a group of neighbors comes together and conducts a neighborhood cleanup without compensation, this is an informal act of waste management. On the contrary, if a group of individuals is hired by a non-profit and paid to perform cleaning, this can be considered a formal act of waste management. Again, this speaks to the degree of responsibility each organization—or individual—holds in the realm of waste management. Knowing the status of employment can guide an understanding around the degree for formality; it constitutes recognition and upholds a duty to the acts being performed. As in, even if a waste management employee is not a city government employee, the fact that they are registered with a company or non-profit indicates their role in a system performing expected waste management services. It is organizational recognition of a waste management need.

Funding Source

The second criterion for consideration is the funding source for an individual or group performing waste management. This means that any recorded transaction of funds to a waste management initiative can clarify its degree of formality. If any response is directly funded by tax dollars or funds from a private company as part of their overall operations budget, this waste management will be considered a formal response. This is because it is an organized acknowledgement of waste management. It required intentional budgeting acts of an entity such as the government, a private company with vested interest in the public right of way, or quasi-governmental entities (organizations that receive public funding and/or operating revenue through taxes). By contrast, informal responses, whether they are acts of cleaning or dumping waste, would need to demonstrate no formal funding mechanism.

Neighborhood Case Study: Pacoima

The deficiencies of waste management in Pacoima have manifested shared and unique informal solutions, led by its community, to confront waste management. Despite the fact that LASAN guarantees these services to all Los Angeles residents, many communities experience inadequate service delivery. Pacoima’s history with waste comes in a multitude of forms, including toxic waste dumping, municipal solid waste pile-ups in public space, bulky household items, chemical contaminants (such as lead in the groundwater supply due to toxic plumes), neighboring landfills in Sun Valley, and particulate matter in the air from industrial processes. Operating out of Pacoima are more than 300 industrial sites, two of which are former toxic release sites (Maida 2009). Illegal dumping is a frequent problem: in an interview, one of the founding members of the grassroots organization Pacoima Beautiful, Marlene Grossman, described in vivid detail the hazardous conditions of roads underneath the freeways, where trucks would dump debris, toxic chemicals, and other waste into the community (Grossman 2020). Local geography exacerbates Pacoima’s vulnerability to environmental and health risks as Pacoima is bordered on three sides by freeways. Pacoima is also home to a small airport with a flight path directly over the neighborhood’s residential areas.[2] Additionally, railroad tracks bisect the neighborhood.

Pacoima’s long history of environmental hazards, coupled with its socio-economic vulnerabilities, tell a story of a devastating phenomenon that impacts communities of color. In many ways Pacoima is an emblematic case of environmental racism, a term coined by the United Church of Christ in its study Toxic Waste and Race in the United States. Central to this concept is the idea that non-white people are disproportionately exposed to pollution and hazardous materials due to underlying structures that exacerbate economic and spatial segregation. The critical geographer Laura Pulido expands upon environmental racism in her article “Rethinking Environmental Racism”, arguing that various forms of racism contribute to disparate environmental outcomes for non-whites, including highly racialized processes of suburbanization and decentralization that intentionally excluded people of color (Pulido 2000).

Since 1987, race has consistently been the most accurate variable in predicting where commercial hazardous waste facilities are sited in the United States, even more than other variables such as income and level of education attainment. In California, communities that are within three kilometers of hazardous waste facilities, also referred to as “host areas,” are composed of 81% people of color on average, whereas non-host areas average only 51% people of color. Of the five states in the United States with the highest numbers of contaminated sites, a combined total of 600,000 largely African American children attends schools located within a half mile of a state-identified contaminated site (Bullard et al. 2007; Child Proofing Campaign 2001). Conceived broadly, the waste-related challenges facing Pacoima are a result of a historic lack of social capital compared to other neighborhoods of Los Angeles. This gap stems from discriminatory policies that have shaped Los Angeles’s urban landscape and perpetuate the racial divide in terms of wealth, health, and quality of life.

Informal Responses and Community-Led Transformation in Pacoima

When formal waste management systems prove ineffective for safeguarding the environment and residents against the harmful effects of waste, informal solutions take root in response. Throughout Pacoima’s history, a number of  informal solutions supplemented inadequate service delivery and advocated for more attention from the municipal waste management and public health authorities. Collectively, these actions led to the formation of a transformational coalition: Pacoima Beautiful. Pacoima Beautiful has since evolved into a “formal” entity, in accordance with the definition offered in this paper. However, informal solutions must be recognized for their ability to seed new strategies for addressing waste and bridging the gap between a community’s access to social capital and the power structures that oversee waste management solutions.

Formation of Pacoima Beautiful

Pacoima Beautiful’s origin story can be traced back to Pacoima’s collapse of industry, which “forced residents to acknowledge that their community’s built and natural environments were degraded.” Two additional disasters, the 1992 civil uprisings and the 1994 Northridge earthquake, helped “[establish] a place-centered community identity among neighbors” as they reconstructed their community and looked to improve quality of life (Maida 2009, 16). Carl Maida, a professor at the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and an early collaborator with the Pacoima Beautiful movement, characterizes these crises as the impetus for Pacoima Beautiful, which originated as a loosely-formed grassroots organizing and community building effort.

Founded 1993, the group was the result of five local mothers coming together with shared frustrations. They were exhausted by the conditions of their community and wanted to see better solutions for the environmental and health hazards. Maida recalls that the original Pacoima Beautiful, a volunteer beautification committee, pivoted toward a more transformative mission to “promote environmental health, justice education, leadership development, and advocacy skills to residents” as the early-on efforts uncovered the scale of systemic dysfunction in regard to waste management. Three programs helped solidify the organization’s mission and informed the later pivot. The first was the Community Inspectors Program, which helped residents identify pollution sources in their community in order to reduce risk of contamination. Second, the Youth Environmentalists Program promoted environmental education projects, leadership development, and skills training for 150 local youth per year. Third, the Safer Homes for a Healthy Community Program helped residents create healthier homes by reducing lead poisoning and asthma triggers. In 1996, Pacoima Beautiful became a formal non-profit organization dedicated to environmental justice, environmental education, leadership development, and community advocacy (Maida 2009).

The small instances of informality that inspired Pacoima Beautiful are useful illustrations of the organization’s early beginnings and how informal efforts led to greater organization and larger informal responses to waste. For example, Marlene Grossman recalls calling LASAN to assist with cleaning up a garbage pile that had formed on a public street and meeting a sanitation worker who was working after hours to clean up trash that he saw on the streets. This led to more collaboration with LASAN for street clean-ups, beautification projects, and education about proper waste disposal. Other examples of the small-but-mighty actions during the early years of Pacoima Beautiful are the daily drives the five founding members would take to assess air quality around the community. These members routinely drove to Pacoima’s busiest intersections before dawn in order to count the number of diesel trucks that passed through the community, in addition to taking air quality samples and collecting other data (Grossman 2020).

With the lessons learned from founding members, Pacoima Beautiful went on to form “bridging networks” with over 150 institutions, organizations, and agencies across legal, political, health, and public domains (Maida 2020). Beginning in 1998, Pacoima Beautiful engaged with faculty from nearby California State University, Northridge (CSUN) like Carl Maida, Tim Dagodag, and John Schillinger, as well as other environmental organizations and government agencies to address waste and environmental issues. By forging a coalition of scientists, community leaders, and youth, the organization was able to launch a broad-reaching survey of 2,000 residents and merchants with a “community-driven information gathering” approach. These partnerships were “essential to the organization’s success” because they allowed people to bring their range of expertise to the table. For scholars, their expertise was their practice; for residents, their expertise was community-specific knowledge (Maida 2009, 17). Partners helped the organization secure funding from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), as well as expand the organization’s capacity to increase resident awareness, monitor pollution, and train Community Inspectors to identify toxic waste and pollution in the community. This informal dialogue between scholars and residents resulted in broader public participation and greater capacity to address waste challenges. Importantly, Pacoima Beautiful’s organizers engaged in strategic planning that ensured the organization would not deviate from its agenda while collaborating with outside agencies and experts.

Formal Responses in Pacoima

Building off of the success of informal responses in Pacoima,  formal responses in this community include the contemporary iteration of Pacoima Beautiful, now a 501(c)3 organization that collaborates with municipal government, and various other initiatives put forth by the city and other organizations and public agencies that focus on community needs.

Pacoima Beautiful

The non-profit organization Pacoima Beautiful is now itself a formal actor in the response to waste in the community. However, the organization’s leadership will be the first to acknowledge how their informal roots define the mission of the organization, as do the persisting informal actions within the community. No longer a committee of volunteers, Pacoima Beautiful employs a team of fifteen people to organize and advocate for a healthier and safer community. As an entity, their access to social capital has greatly expanded. This is reflected in their leadership and the organization’s access to financial support. For example, their Executive Director serves on the Los Angeles City Planning Commission. Additionally, they have successfully secured City grants to implement community-informed programming.

In 2005, Pacoima Beautiful received a Level I CARE Cooperative Agreement grant to help build collaborative partnerships, including relationships with residents and other organizations, and address unmet needs facing Pacoima. This allowed Pacoima Beautiful to identify priority health risks and set goals for action. In 2007 Pacoima Beautiful received a CARE Level II grant intended to help the organization “take action to reduce risks” from its two identified priority areas: local automotive repair shops and diesel emissions from trucks and buses in the community. Pacoima Beautiful collected baseline data, planned educational campaigns to encourage high-risk businesses to regulate pollution, and determined indicators for success (EPA 2007). Pacoima Beautiful has been the recipient of many other grants, including a Hewitt grant and a state cap-and-trade grant for projects related to improving public health and environmental improvement initiatives.

Municipal Waste Management

Pacoima’s formal responses to waste issues are built on pre-existing waste management infrastructure across Los Angeles, including regular collection services, laws against illegal dumping, and efforts to clean up dumped refuse. In the wake of persistent issues characterized in this paper, formal responses to waste crises in Pacoima now include public funding for community beautification initiatives in the form of grants, LASAN Department assistance with community clean up days, infrastructure upgrades, a more robust system for reporting waste violations, and regular inspections. Many of these sprang from informal mobilization by residents and community members.

Clean Streets LA

In 2015, Mayor Eric Garcetti launched Clean Streets LA, an initiative that aims to “eliminate blight and uncleanliness across all Los Angeles communities” and “foster greater collaboration with the public to improve livability across the city” (Santana and Thomas 2015). The Clean Streets LA program seeks to improve reporting by developing a street conditions observation unit program The initiative also includes a data collection component: the City aims to develop a cleanliness rating index, which applies to streets, sidewalks, and trash receptacles. Furthermore, the Clean Streets initiative has a trash receptacle program that puts additional trash receptacles on the street, funds clean-ups of illegally dumped items and bulky items, attempts to reduce blight on vacant lots through a new process of property distribution, and updates the street sweeping program to optimize for controlling waste.

While a top-down solution that is not explicitly informed by the unique needs of communities, Clean Streets LA has resulted in new inroads for community members to seek municipal support.  Because of Clean Streets LA, Pacoima can request LASAN’s assistance during community clean-up days and support for free bulky item drop-off events. However, it remains a contested program as it has resulted in the displacement—and banishment—of unhoused people from public spaces in the name of clean streets across Los Angeles (“Street Watch Los Angeles” 2020).

Clean Up Green Up and “Green Zones”

In 2016, the Los Angeles City Council passed Clean Up Green Up, a city ordinance that “prioritizes health and economic well-being” for Pacoima residents. The National Resource Defense Council views this ordinance as “the city formally recogniz[ing] [Pacoima Beautiful’s] role in the community” (Binns 2019). Before this ordinance, the city would only respond to an issue after five to ten individuals filed complaints. With the law in place, the city ensures that resident complaints are addressed, and has installed an ombudsman for community members and local businesses. It also stipulates that any residential property located within 100 feet from a freeway must install MERV 13 air filters, which filter out pollution emitted by automobiles. Finally, the Clean Up Green Up policy created “Green Zones” in Pacoima and two other communities with high levels of pollution. Within these Green Zones, the city partners with residents to reduce and prevent pollution and revitalize neighborhoods through financial incentives, infrastructure improvements, and green space (Liberty Hill 2012).

Are Formal Responses Enough – or Must Informal Responses Persist?

Pacoima’s circumstances reflect that of the conceptual wasteland, a neighborhood that has become a place of government neglect with residents who have been historically treated as out of place. The efforts of Pacoima Beautiful not only reflect the ever-pressing need to address matters of waste and poverty, they also reject the wasteland identity cast upon them by decades of government inaction. Their mission calls for action, and an acknowledgement that the people in their community are worthy of an environmental justice reform. And while rejection of the wasteland fuels their organization and the work they do, the amount of time this organization has existed out of necessity warrants great consideration.

Yet, despite the impressive efforts of Pacoima Beautiful, there remains insufficient action from LASAN and Los Angeles lawmakers. In turn, informal actions persist—actions beyond the purview of Pacoima Beautiful. The formal responses remain deficient, and the informal responses seem to be the answer. Which begs the question: have the City of Los Angeles and other formal actors responded adequately to waste management needs of vulnerable neighborhoods, or do they remain overly reliant on community-led responses to address the symptoms of environmental racism that plague communities like Pacoima?

Outcomes in Pacoima

Responses to waste in Pacoima reflect greater economic, political, and social realities. Informal actions, individual and collective, can lead to systemic change. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the City’s formal solutions are insufficient and overly reliant on community-based informal solutions.

A current community organizer with Pacoima Beautiful described the condition of the neighborhood when he started in 2016: “[t]here was lots of dumping on the waterways, like fridges, couches, and industrial material” (Armenta 2020). He went on to note that while there have been huge improvements in Pacoima’s waste-related challenges, the problem of dumping is still ongoing. Pacoima Beautiful’s founder Marlene Grossman described how “there have been various times when the city gets involved, and various times of pulling back.” Calling the formal sector’s involvement “sporadic at best”, she characterized waste in Pacoima as an “ongoing problem” and points to continued instances of dumping (Grossman 2020).

Grossman believes that the issue of waste resides with people in the community, as their actions have historically enabled transformative change. “People have to become more knowledgeable” about the issues in Pacoima, she stated during an interview. Fortunately, through Pacoima Beautiful’s learning initiatives and community engagement, this knowledge is permeating throughout the community. When interviewed, Carl Maida commented on the growing community awareness around Pacoima Beautiful’s work, particularly health and environmental issues. This awareness, he argued, translates to action strategies across the community. Pacoima Beautiful aids this work by “[creating] an arena around waste, and community self-image” that leads to deeper community investment in environmental justice (Maida 2020). While this empowerment will undoubtedly build on the wave of change sparked by Pacoima Beautiful, several questions remain: Must the onus for service improvement remain the sole responsibility of the community? And how might government-led, formal solutions take responsibility for the challenges that spur informal solutions?

A first step in addressing the latter question can be found in the City waste program recycLA, which LASAN initiated in 2017 with Pacoima Beautiful’s endorsement. The recycLA program allows LASAN to standardize customer service processes and mandates haulers to provide outreach and education to customers about how to report waste issues (City of Los Angeles 2020c). In 2019, the number of 311 calls made about illegal dumping and bulky item removal in Pacoima grew more than 296% from 2015 levels. This rate was higher than the average citywide growth in 311 usage, which was 292%. In comparison to communities across Los Angeles of similar demographics, the increase in 311 usage in Pacoima is 30 points above their increase usage of 311 since 2015. For instance, calls in Boyle Heights increased by 263% and calls in Watts grew by 278%. In fact, the increase in 311 usage reflected in Pacoima looks more similar to high-income communities such as Bel Air, whose growth in 311 calls during the same time period was 299% (City of Los Angeles 2020a; 2020b). While further investigation is warranted to understand the exact circumstances that led to these differential rates of increase, at face value, the parity in Pacoima and Bel Air’s growth rates reflects how locales with access to social capital—whether derived from wealth, or by informal community-led efforts—were better positioned to take advantage of city services. This use of 311 reveals greater confidence and connection between the community and government solutions for waste management. Pacoima’s strategy stands to inform and inspire other communities, but more importantly, it should reveal to the City how its awareness and support of informal efforts can empower people and allow greater access to services.

Successful top-down waste management approaches should respond to community demands and amplify actions at the grassroots, including waste education and community awareness. Pacoima Beautiful stands as an emblematic example of the importance of community mobilization to generate public waste education programs. More recent instances of this grassroots action can be found in South Central neighborhoods such as Watts, where residents have begun coordinating regular neighborhood cleanup events following the uprisings connected to the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020. By engaging and learning from Pacoima Beautiful and the activities unfolding in Watts, the City can enact more effective and compassionate waste management solutions in underserved communities.


Waste presents a window into larger stories of government neglect and community-driven solutions. By recognizing the etymological connection of waste and place, this paper has examined the concept of a “wasteland”, tying waste to broad systemic injustice in historically marginalized communities. An absence of social capital in Pacoima has rendered this community excluded from community economic development and adequate infrastructure provision. Moreover, government abandonment of historically marginal communities has often been padded by rhetoric of self-help and “heroic entrepreneurialism”, indicating an over-reliance on informal solutions from the grassroots.

However, this neglect can be addressed. A combination of formal and informal responses to inadequate waste management issues can enable iterative and transformative changes to daily waste problems, as well as greater public health and environmental justice challenges. By illustrating the challenges that exist in Pacoima, this paper exposes the linkage between waste and community neglect, and concludes with a call to action for long-term solutions that address underlying conditions of marginality. Mismanaged waste is a symptom of public neglect, and will persist without an explicit agenda to alleviate systemic inequity.

These observations are synthesized into policy recommendations for the City of Los Angeles and LASAN Department to consider. These recommendations reference dynamics specific to Los Angeles, but can inform municipalities across the country as environmental racism is not unique to Los Angeles.


This paper’s recommendations are distilled from primary and secondary data gathered from  interviews with residents, service providers and community-based organizations, publicly available government reports (e.g. 311 data), academic literature, and the personal experience of the authors of this paper who possess years of work experience in waste management in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The general policy recommendations apply to LASAN, the City of Los Angeles, and other municipal governments with similar waste management systems and infrastructure. The neighborhood-specific recommendations apply specifically to neighborhoods with large non-white populations and populations that face disproportionate socioeconomic vulnerability, such as Pacoima.

General Policy Recommendations for Municipalities

  1. Recognize the relationship between waste management and historic racial inequities when deciding how to allocate public resources. It is the result of decades of systemic discrimination that communities of color disproportionately experience insufficient waste management. Therefore, policymakers must frame resource gaps with an environmental justice lens, open spaces for dialogue about citizens’ needs and experiences, and incorporate historically marginalized voices to planning policies. Policymakers should consider racial equity training, and ensure that these trainings explicitly look at the history of environmental racism. These trainings should require public administrators to examine their programs and identify ways to adjust operations, politics, and so on that may perpetuate environmental racism. 
  1. Incorporate participatory structures into public decision-making in order to build trust. Waste management services funded by the City should adopt community-specific solutions for waste management that respond to articulated community needs. In this process, it is essential to value feedback on services that are working, or not working. Municipalities should develop participatory structures to receive community input through surveys, in-person meetings, or other efforts. In order to build influence and social capital, community-led organizations should collaborate with other actors, including organizations, public agencies, and institutions as a way of expanding knowledge and public buy-in.

Participatory structures can also aid in protecting trust when there are concerns with City-led programs. Built in processes to receive feedback can allow municipalities an opportunity to address concerns and better understand community mobilizations. For example, Street Watch LA, KTown for All, NOlympics LA, and 34 other local organizations currently support public campaigns that reject Clean Streets LA and condemn Mayor Garcetti and LASAN for implementing an approach that has threatened the homes of unhoused neighbors. These organizing efforts have often manifested as peaceful protests, in which participants use their numbers to obstruct LASAN workers from accessing an unhoused community’s encampment. After years of coalition building and intervention, Los Angeles Times covered these organizations’ work for the first time in August 2020 (Reyes 2020). For far too long, the City avoided and ignored these concerns. Stronger community engagement and participatory processes can better understand and respond to community responses, especially those that highlight concerns on behalf of  historically disenfranchised individuals and communities.

  1. Aid in the coordination of cleaning services. Despite sharing a common funding source (often from the municipal budget), there is a persistent lack of coordination between local waste management efforts (many of which receive government funding) and city services. Different agencies often have difficulty coordinating litter removal and bulky item pick-ups throughout the day, as each group is also bound to report on their performance (i.e. the volume of waste removed).  These services receive significant financial backing, and a lack of coordination results in wasted resources. Improving coordination between different service providers would thus increase efficiency, prevent duplicative efforts, and inhibit misuse of valuable public funds.
  1. Leverage the transformative potential of waste. Community organizations and advocates can reconceptualize the struggle for adequate waste service provisions as part of a larger political project to forge new kinds of urban citizenship. By organizing to demand justice and recognition, communities can shift the terms of engagement that govern their place within political processes. Already undertaken by organized social movements of waste reclaimers in the Global South, this process entails restructuring power relationships between municipal authorities and citizens, and reversing forms of historical oppression.

Notes on Business Improvement Districts

In addition to the function of the City of Los Angeles vis a vis LASAN and its associated contracts, quasi-governmental non-profits known as Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) play an important role in waste management. As of 2020, there are at least 30 BIDs in the City of Los Angeles ( 2020). In the context of this analysis of Pacoima, it should be noted that the neighborhood does not have a BID. However, BIDs are important to understand as a “solution” for waste management in a neighborhood as their hyper-local function is often misconstrued with successful community engagement.

BIDs are non-profit organizations that provide services such as street cleaning and neighborhood event programming, funded by an assessment tax paid by properties within a certain geographic boundary. The revenue from this tax, which is calculated based on the square footage of each property within the BID boundary, is directed to a non-profit entity that operates the BID. The process of establishing a BID in Los Angeles involves a City-managed election where votes are collected from property owners, as they are the ones paying the tax that will fund the BID.

One of the primary functions of a BID is its capacity to provide cleaning services by contracting with private cleaning services. These duties include street sweeping, pressure washing, graffiti removal, and coordination with the City for management of large, bulky items. This function is often one of the key reasons why property owners agree to pay the assessment tax for BIDs. However, because the BID is funded by property owners, those are the primary stakeholders that BIDs aim to serve. This means that even with outreach to residents that do not own property or small businesses that lease commercial space and attempt to incorporate their aspirations for the community’s cleanliness, the BIDs waste management agenda is legally bound to primarily serve property owners. Furthermore, BID leadership does not often reflect the community overall. For example, the Hollywood Business Improvement District only allowed non-property owners to serve on the board in 2020. The BID has been in place since 1996 and is home to an exceptionally diverse, low-income community of residents (median AMI within the BID is around $30,000, and over half of its residents are non-white) that do not own property as well as over 500 small businesses, most of which do not own the buildings they operate in (The Hollywood Partnership 2020b). The organization approved by-laws in January 2020 to allow non-property owners to serve on its board with the condition that “non-property owners applying for a board seat must submit a letter from the property owner authorizing them to represent the property” (The Hollywood Partnership 2020c). The shift in the Hollywood BID’s leadership may result in services that better reflect the community at large, but the fact remains that the BID serves at the will of property owners (The Hollywood Partnership 2020a).

BIDs are quasi-governmental entities. When established, they introduce a new layer of jurisdiction to a neighborhood. Beyond cleaning and waste management services, they also tend to introduce security guards of other forms of Community Ambassadors to manage behavior in the public right of way. This function is designed to protect properties as well as offer resources to pedestrians such as wayfinding. Even with adequate property owner and non-property owner representation on the board of a BID, these public space “monitoring” services may run contrary to the values of the neighborhood.

Overall, BIDs may offer capacity for waste management, but their leadership and additional services may also solidify an imbalance of power and decision making that stand to deepen gaps in waste management and perpetuate inequality.

Neighborhood-Specific Recommendations for Pacoima & Communities with Large Non-White Populations
  1. Publicly acknowledge histories of environmental racism. The burden of coping with and addressing a history of environmental racism should not fall solely on the residents of a neighborhood, like those who reside in Pacoima and lead the organization Pacoima Beautiful. Governments can acknowledge and develop a course of action to rectify a history of practices that perpetuate environmental racism by publishing reports that recount and acknowledge past racist policy, or revisiting the process by which hazardous waste plants are sited, with feedback from environmental justice advocates. Furthermore, a number of municipal governments are engaged in racial equity training sessions for their City departments and their staff. These trainings must focus on the histories of environmental racism and address work programs within departments that perpetuate—and stand to undo—these inequalities.
  1. Tailor outreach and collaboration to the neighborhood-scale so that unique and specific community concerns can be incorporated into municipal waste management policy.

Establishing models for collective action and organization can enable the development of a shared agenda and goals as well as resource sharing. For example, departments like LASAN should identify opportunities to regularly meet with non-profit organizations such as Pacoima Beautiful and individual actors. Contained within granular informal encounters is valuable knowledge that formal institutions can learn from. These informal moments can take the form of meeting with community members, or encouraging sanitation workers to build relationships in a neighborhood. In crafting formal responses to waste management, the City should leverage these informal interactions to inform waste management policy (Winfrey 2020).Further examples of potential outcomes from these participatory decision-making efforts may include new, multi-pronged efforts to support small businesses who cannot afford recycling services (e.g. recycLA rates), initiating programs to remove dropped off food waste from landfill and move it to a compost processing site, and collecting unwanted clothing for textile recycling.

  1. Identify gaps in the municipal waste management work program that have been overly reliant on “heroic entrepreneurialism”. LASAN must divest from waste management strategies that require vulnerable communities to mobilize in order to obtain adequate services. These approaches ultimately produce banished landscapes for Angelenos who are poor or are people of color, and reinforce neoliberal ideals of state withdrawal from public service provision. It is essential to understand the balance between community engagement and glorifying undue burden on historically oppressed communities. The City should recognize the conjunctures by which powerful community organizations like Pacoima Beautiful were born, identify the community tools and mechanisms neighborhoods employ to cause city services to be improved, and create proactive waste solutions in the vulnerable communities that lack the social capital required to spur action and campaign for their own environmental health outcomes.

Work Cited

Architectural Resources Group. 2014. “Historic Resources Survey Report: Arleta-Pacoima Community Plan Area.” Pasadena, CA: Architectural Resources Group, Inc.

Armenta, Dora. 2020. Personal Correspondence.

Barles, Sabine. 2014. “History of Waste Management and the Social and Cultural Representations of Waste.” In The Basic Environmental History, 199–226. Springer.

Binns, Corey. 2019. “Overcoming an Industrial Legacy in L.A.’s Pacoima District.” NRDC. March 18, 2019.

Bullard, Robert, Paul Mohai, Robin Saha, and Beverly Wright. 2007. “Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty.”

Child Proofing Campaign. 2001. “Poisoned Schools: Invisible Threats, Visible Actions.” Child Proofing Our Communities Campaign.

City Data. 2016. “Pacoima Neighborhood Detailed Profile.” City Data. 2016.

———. 2017. “Los Angeles Detailed Profile.” City Data. 2017.

City of Los Angeles. 2020a. “MyLA311 Service Request Data 2015 | Los Angeles – Open Data Portal.” 2020.

———. 2020b. “MyLA311 Service Request Data 2019 | Los Angeles – Open Data Portal.” City of Los Angeles. 2020.

———. 2020c. “RecycLA.” RecycLA. 2020.!%40%40%3F_afrWindowId%3Dtg636el0v%26_afrLoop%3D11383712749813806%26_afrWindowMode%3D0%26_adf.ctrl-state%3Dstuiel9y6_243.

“Clean Streets LA.” 2020. Clean Streets LA. 2020.

DeFilippis, James. 2001. “The Myth of Social Capital in Community Development.” Housing Policy Debate 12 (4): 781–806.

Douglas, Mary. 2003. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Routledge.

EPA. 2007. “Reducing Toxic Risks In LA: Community of Pacoima.” 2007.

Grossman, Marlene. 2020. Personal Correspondence. Video Conference.

Holland, Gale. 2019. “Locked out of L.A.’s White Neighborhoods, They Built a Black Suburb. Now They’re Homeless.” Los Angeles Times, September 9, 2019, sec. California.

LA Sanitation. 2020. “What We Do.” Los Angeles Department of Sanitation. 2020.!%40%40%3F_afrWindowId%3Dnull%26_afrLoop%3D11383448803813794%26_afrWindowMode%3D0%26_adf.ctrl-state%3Dstuiel9y6_5.

Liberty Hill. 2012. “Creating Green Zones in the City of Los Angeles.” Liberty Hill Foundation.

Maida, Carl. 2008. Pathways through Crisis: Urban Risk and Public Culture. Rowman Altamira.

———. 2009. “Expert and Lay Knowledge in Pacoima: Public Anthropology and an Essential Tension in Community-Based Participatory Action Research.” Anthropology in Action 16 (2): 14–26.

———. 2020. Personal Correspondence.

Pulido, Laura. 2000. “Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90 (1): 12–40.

Reyes, Emily Alpert. 2020. “Protesters Surround Tents, Block Streets to Stop Major Cleanup of Hollywood Homeless Encampment.” Los Angeles Times. August 26, 2020.

Roy, Ananya. 2005. “Urban Informality: Toward an Epistemology of Planning.” Journal of the American Planning Association 71 (2): 147–158.

Santana, Miguel, and Mark Thomas. 2015. “Improving Livability in Los Angeles.” Los Angeles: Clean Streets LA.

“Street Watch Los Angeles.” 2020. STREET WATCH LOS ANGELES. 2020.

The Hollywood Partnership. 2020a. “Hollywood Entertainment District.” The Hollywood Partnership (blog). 2020.

———. 2020b. “Hollywood Market Report Q3.” Los Angeles.

———. 2020c. “Hollywood Property Owners Alliance Board of Directors Meeting.” The Hollywood Partnership (blog). November 2020.

Winfrey, James. 2020. Personal Correspondence. 2020. “Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), Los Angeles (Calif.).” 2020.

[1] See Robert Putnam’s 1988 book Bowling Alone, as well as much scholarship in contemporary development studies.

[2] According to a founding member of Pacoima Beautiful, planes used to release leaded fuel out of their engines to decrease weight when making the descent into the Pacoima airport. This fuel dropped onto the community, causing uncontrolled pollution. (Grossman 2020)

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