Oakland’s Trash Program Promotes Waste

Distracted by a political battle over Oakland's lucrative waste contract, the city council approved garbage prices that discourage composting and penalize recyclers.

On July 1, Oakland launched a new trash pickup program that officials said would make the city a leader in waste reduction and sustainability. As part of a new franchise agreement that the city negotiated last year, apartment residents now have guaranteed access to composting, Oaklanders have more ways to dispose of bulky items (such as mattresses and furniture), and garbage collectors now use natural gas-powered trucks.

But while those service changes will certainly make the city’s trash system more environmentally friendly, the new program also includes several features that directly contradict the city’s sustainability goals integrated into its so-called Zero Waste Program. In fact, the massive rate hikes in the waste contract, which the Oakland City Council approved last fall, are structured in a way that discourage businesses from composting and unfairly penalize the most dedicated residential recyclers.

Oakland businesses are now required to pay significantly more for compost services than trash services — making it financially burdensome to run a green operation. That means restaurants that generate a lot of food waste can save a substantial amount of money by throwing the waste away rather than by composting it. In addition, residents of single-family homes who use the smallest-size garbage bins — and thus produce the least amount of landfill waste — have been slapped with the largest rate increases. In short, the new rates effectively penalize homeowners who do the most recycling.

“If the city wants people to compost and recycle, they need to make it affordable,” said Chris Hillyard, owner of Farley’s Coffee in downtown Oakland. Farley’s used to pay $209 per month for compost pickups, but under the new program has to pay $390 for the same services — an 87 percent increase. Hillyard’s new composting bills are also substantially higher than his trash bills. “You’re basically penalized for composting,” he said.

The environmentally regressive features of the new contract were buried deep in the hundreds of pages of city documents that outlined the franchise agreement and earned the council’s unanimous approval last year. In fact, the anti-composting measure appears to have slipped through without some councilmembers even realizing it was part of the plan, records reveal. That oversight is likely due in part to the fact that much of the council’s discussion centered on a drawn-out political and legal battle between the city and two private companies that submitted proposals for the contract.

Ultimately, the council approved a contract that split services between two firms that were vying for the ten-year franchise. Waste Management, a Texas-based corporation that sued the city when it initially lost the contract, is now the exclusive provider of trash and composting services for residents and businesses. And California Waste Solutions (CWS), an Oakland-based company, is now responsible for all residential recycling. (Commercial recycling is not part of the franchise.)

The council had originally awarded the entire $1 billion franchise to CWS, prompting Waste Management to accuse the city in a lawsuit of illegally sharing Waste Management’s confidential and proprietary information to CWS during negotiations. In response, city officials proposed a compromise that included both companies in the franchise — and the council and two firms agreed to the plan. Lost in the shuffle of this debate, however, was the fact that the new rates penalize sustainable practices.

From the start of the process, it was unavoidable that the rates would rise somewhat substantially since the city had twice extended the previous contract — originally set to expire in 2010 — thereby preserving lower prices for four years. But the fact that rates for commercial composting are higher than trash prices surprised many this month — including, apparently, Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan. After a loud outcry from restaurant owners during the past two weeks, Kaplan sent an email (which I obtained) to city officials and council colleagues, stating, “We did NOT approve charging more for composting than for trash. … This is NOT in compliance with the Council’s approval.”

Kaplan’s assertions, however, are incorrect. At the end of one supplemental attachment in the packet of documents that the council approved last September, a rate sheet revealed that Waste Management would charge businesses more for compost than trash. For example, the chart said that 20-gallon carts picked up once a week would cost $27.97 a month for trash, but $33.84 for compost; 64-gallon carts with pickups twice a week would cost $165.42 monthly for trash, but $198 for compost; and 96-gallon carts picked up three times a week would cost $381.21 for trash and $457.62 for compost. These are the rates that are in place now. Kaplan did not respond to requests for comment for this report.

Previously, commercial composting was not a part of Oakland’s franchise agreement, meaning that restaurants could choose any vendor to pick up food waste. Many Oakland restaurants used Recology, which is the waste hauler for San Francisco. With those restaurants now forced to use Waste Management, the price to process compost has increased astronomically — anywhere from 80 to 120 percent, according to a recent letter that 35 restaurant owners sent to city officials and Waste Management.

“We believe in composting. We believe in minimizing waste,” said Gail Lillian, owner of Liba Falafel, who has been coordinating restaurants’ protests of the new rates. “But now, we’re suddenly paying a really, really large bill for the same services we were getting before.” With Recology, Liba Falafel paid $225 per month for compost, according to Lillian. Now, Waste Management charges her $458 per month — more than double.

For Farley’s Coffee, total waste costs have increased by $3,060 annually, Hillyard said. Before the new contract, Hillyard, who also used Recology for composting, used to pay about 22 cents per gallon of trash and 19 cents per gallon of compost. Now, both rates have increased dramatically and his composting costs surpass trash expenses: He pays roughly 31 cents per gallon of garbage and 35 cents per gallon of compost. “We’re going to keep composting even though it costs us more,” he said.

Under a countywide mandatory recycling and composting program, Oakland businesses will be required to compost starting in July 2016. That means that for the next year, businesses concerned with their bottom line can choose to opt out of composting, which the new contract incentivizes them to do. At the same time, some environmental advocates are worried that once composting becomes mandatory, businesses will choose to order small compost bins with fewer pickups and then regularly dump food in the trash — a cheaper way to dispose of waste given the new rates.

On the residential side, a disproportionately high increase for single-family homes with 20-gallon carts for trash — the smallest option — also passed with seemingly no discussion or clear disclosures. In press releases and official reports on the new contract, the city repeatedly stated that single-family residents would now pay $36.82 per month — which constituted a 23.6 percent increase from the previous rates ($29.80). That increase, however, referred to families with 32-gallon carts. For those with 20-gallon carts, the increase was substantially higher — both in terms of the percentage and actual dollar amount.

While those with 32-gallon carts got monthly increases of $7.02, residents with 20-gallon carts are facing monthly increases of $9.89 per month — a 44.5 percent increase (from $22.21 to $32.10 per month). That huge increase only appeared in a chart buried in an obscure supplemental report the city published in its documents.

Oakland resident Ralph Kanz, who uses a 20-gallon cart and had followed the city’s process, was thus shocked by the increase in his first new bill. He had assumed that his hike would be close to — or less than — the 24 percent increase that city officials disclosed for single-family homes. “You’d think the less you use, the less your rates would increase,” he said.

“A lot of us have worked hard to cut out waste,” added Oakland resident Nancy Sidebotham, who is a former mayoral candidate and also uses a 20-gallon cart. “The people you’ve raised the rates the most on are the people who are conserving.”

In interviews, city officials defended the rates for commercial and residential services, arguing that they reflect the costs of providing the programs. Regarding the disproportionate increase for 20-gallon residential trash bins, Peter Slote, the city’s solid waste and recycling program supervisor, said the rate for these containers has been suppressed at a low price for years.

Sean Maher, spokesperson for the city’s Zero Waste Program, also contended that the costs of providing services for 20-gallon containers are not substantially different than the costs for 32-gallon bins. Regarding restaurants’ compost rates, Maher said the city is now talking to Waste Management and businesses to discuss potential solutions, but declined to provide specifics. “We’ve heard and understand their frustrations,” he said, referring to restaurants. “It’s a concern that we in the city share.”

Waste Management spokesperson Karen Stern noted that there are substantially more single-family customers with 32-gallon carts (59,624 in 2014) than 20-gallon bins (18,531). That’s why, she said, the city often cited the increases for 32-gallon carts. Regarding businesses’ complaints, she wrote in an email that the company is meeting with the city and restaurateurs and is considering potential “adjustments to the commercial compost rate.” She didn’t provide specifics.

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