Photo courtesy of Mike Mohajer (second from left), Senior Project Manager with other SCS Engineers, 1978

Greenhouse gas and the future of trash

By MARISA MATA, Student Writer

Mike Mohajer (1966) stands in front of students at UCLA and asks, “What happens to your trash once you put it out on the curb?” Most students have no idea. He asks, “What happens to the things you put in the recycle bin?” Again, most students don’t know. Mohajer, retired assistant deputy director of Environmental Programs for the County of Los Angeles Department of Public Works, says, “We as a society, don’t want to think about it, don’t want to address it, don’t want to talk about it. But somebody has to do it; I’m one of the many individuals that cares.”

Born and raised in Iran, Mohajer moved to the United States in 1960 to follow his dream of studying in “the land of opportunity.” He graduated from Fresno State in 1966 with a degree in civil engineering, and went on to have a successful career. Although he is officially retired, Mohajer continuously dedicates his time to speaking to college students and improving legislation concerning waste management and the environment.

Mohajer attended Fresno State at a time when society wasn’t very conscious of the environment. He said, “Every household had a burner, and they burned their trash. There was a lot of smoke, a lot of particulate matter, and nobody thought about the damage to their health or [about] making the air bad. Once they determined that was an issue, we went to dumping [in landfills]; and they never thought about what happens to the trash.”

Trash begins the decomposition process after it’s left in a landfill, emitting carbon dioxide and methane gas. The gases that are released travel through the air and can be explosive in high concentrations.

Not long after Mohajer graduated, a landfill in Los Angeles exploded. After the explosion, Mohajer became a part of a team of engineers who studied travel patterns of methane. His research lasted three years, and changed building codes and determined the location of landfills in Los Angeles County.

Mohajer went on to work for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works for 29 years, retiring in 2003. In this role, Mohajer helped the County comply with the California Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989, leading the Environmental Programs Division.

Since his retirement, Mohajer has worked with the Integrated Waste Management Task Force to propose better ways to analyze and reduce greenhouse gas levels, as initiated by the California Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006. He also continuously speaks to college students, serves as a director of the Southern California Waste Management Forum and works with California legislators.

Mohajer was named the 2008 Outstanding Engineer in Legislative Activities by the California American Society of Civil Engineers for his influence on legislation involving “landfills and their post-closure maintenance, recycling…and the proper management of sharps and universal waste.” He plans to continue pushing legislation to improve California’s recycling program and its management of pharmaceutical waste.

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