It seems I wasn’t the only one to reduce the size of my trash bin last year — both to save money and because with more efforts on the recycling front I really didn’t need a large landfill container any longer.

I upped the ante on composting, but the real difference was scooping up all plastic bags that pass through the household, even when you’re not using them to shop, and depositing them at the Claremont Safeway collection can.

Trouble is with all of us on such an aggressive recycling kick, Berkeley residents combined have led to a $4 million decline in refuse revenues for the city, contributing to a total $10 million deficit.

As Matthai Kuruvila reports in the Chronicle today, Berkeley is a victim of its own success. Andrew Clough, the city’s deputy director of public works, says they will have to revisit the whole business model for recycling and garbage.

Read the Chronicle story here.

Tracey Taylor

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...

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  1. Garbage Rate Structure Is The Problem, Not Recycling

    Recent coverage of the Solid Waste Management Fund deficit in Berkeley wrongly places the blame on recycling and composting. Recycling and Composting are cheaper to provide than garbage disposal. The problem lies in how the services are paid for.

    It also failed to cover the fact that the residential fee problem is only a minor part of the picture. The real story is that garbage is the back end of the consumer culture, so when consumerism slows so do the tons of garbage, and therefore the revenue, yet the infrastructure and staffing still need to be in place.

    The problem, which all cities are facing, is that as more materials are disposed of through recycling and composting, the bill to residents is still only tied to the garbage can.

    Whether a public or private entity provides the service the issue is the same: when we produce less garbage and opt for a smaller cheaper can, revenue goes down. All of the services still need to be paid for, but are not showing up on the bill. So it is the rate model that needs rethinking, not the services.

    With the City providing the service at least the issues are more transparent and can be addressed locally. Transnational garbage companies respond to their remote headquarters and there always has to be a piece of the pie for far away CEOs and their shareholders. When Waste Management locked out employees for a month in 2007 no local City could address the problem directly. Garbage piled up and scabs were brought in, it was a HUGE mess. So yes, there are good reasons for a City to do it themselves, or to contract with smaller local entities.

    Berkeley has always been somewhat schizophrenic on scavenging: while it represents a loss in revenue it is hard to police and and prohibition would take money from hardworking folks who are in the extremely hard to employ category producing other costly impacts. Perhaps this budget crisis will shift the debate.

    Berkeley is not unique in this rate structure struggle. What would be unique is if Berkeley actually tackles this structural rate problem or takes the leap to bi-weekly garbage collection. These are two forward thinking approaches that may actually solve the problem rather than masking it by more across the board rate increases.

    Martin Bourque
    Executive Director
    Ecology Center
    Berkeley’s Non-Profit Recycler

  2. Recycle scavengers pose a significant financial problem for Berkeley–both financial and in meeting the recycling goals. In effect, the recycling program is costing twice (at least) to operate–paying both the recycling contractor and the individuals who collect and take to the buyback program. (Never mind the other problems of nighttime fights in the street over territory, messiness, etc.) Perhaps if the monies were put into more small collection centers in neighborhoods, and an effective marketing campaign were conducted, more residents would be willing to handle their own rather than leaving it curbside. Remember the recycling that many families did during WWII?

  3. In my hometown of Chicago – mid ’70’s we recycled. Newspaper, glass, and aluminum. The prize was either a roll of tp or paper towels. My mother loved it! My mother-in – law gave us a can crusher one year. What a great invention. The entire process is so simple. Why couldn’t chicago purchase garbage trucks with recycling organizers like Evanston? Living now in Berkeley – you don’t see anything that isn’t recycled! Come on – how can this be a deficit!????

  4. TN: the scavengers are interesting and, as with you, dominate the official recycling program.

    Three (composite sketches) of scavengers I’ve met:

    1) The highly organized one, apparently part of a larger group, who is neat and tidy, persistent and hard-working, and schleps stuff on foot for a several mile round-trip to a recycling center.

    2) The dumpster divers who are mostly just looking for re-usable stuff rather than recyclable but sometimes gather up recycling to make a few quick bucks.

    3) The strung out dysfunctional ones who make a pig sty of the dumpster area and visibly have plenty of issues.

    Between the three types, the municipal service *barely* winds up collecting our paper and, even then, not all of it and often with lots of contamination in the bin.

    So, yeah, from this local perspective, the municipal program is a total train wreck. The only bright spot that mostly works is the composting program. *Mostly* works (but suffers when the dysfunctional scavenges and others put all kinds of random crap in the bin).

    Wild-card suggestion: perhaps we should sanction and put under permit control responsible careerist scavengers. I’m not sure the administrative and enforcement overhead would be worth it, though. Perhaps at a higher level (like State level) we should better regulate the buyers – although even that is hard to do well (c.f. the problems with copper theft).

    As for Berkeley’s general refuse collection losing money as people downgrade to smaller bins: I’m not so sure recycling is the main issue. For example, in my last place the landlords downgraded bin size not because our recycling had gone up but because they could get by with less bin capacity and were apparently hurting for cash. I suspect that there’s a lot of that going around. There’s no good reason to assume that the virtue of recycling is the proximate cause here.

    More than one of my science/engineering-geek friends has agreed to the proposition that landfills are the gold-mines of the future and that a lot of what gets incinerated would theoretically more profitably be, well, not incinerated. A long term solution here might be to concentrate on monetizing even the general purpose waste stream.

  5. Now I know why the city ignored me when I tried to encourage them to publicize the obvious: that residents could more than cancel the 20% refuse rate increase simply by downsizing their “trash” can by only one size. Since most cans are picked up only partly full and the charge was and is by volume, many of us faithful recyclers were paying every week for the city to pick up our black-bin’s air!

    So a typical Berkeley outcome: we achieved the green benefit of more faithful recycling and composting, but seemingly never anticipated the economic cost of (narrowly cast) success.

  6. The Chronicle article leaves out one of the major problems facing the curbside recycling program. The scavenging of recyclables before the Ecology Center trucks arrive significantly reduce revenues. This is a problem not just in Berkeley but also in other cities.

    We usually put our recycling out at the curb at about 7:45 am. I know that when I leave the house at about 8:30 am, ALL the cans and bottles with a CRV value will be gone. I can tell when the price of steel scrap is up because empty tins will also have disappeared. On occasion even our bundled newspapers will have disappeared long before the Ecology Center trucks arrive. They end up picking up only the mixed paper scrap and some recyclable plastic bottles without a CRV value.

    I have thought for a long time that our recycling program needs to be rethought. Since no cities I know of have effectively stopped recycling poachers through legal enforcement, may be we should redesign our program assuming that scavengers will get the high value items and reduce the frequency of pick ups for the lower value items like mixed paper and plastic.

  7. According to the Chronicle article, there’s also an interesting story on the effect of Berkeley’s continuing to handle refuse and recycling with its own employees and own capital investment. We apparently can’t afford the equipment that would let us recycle certain kinds of plastic and concrete.

    I understand the struggles against privatization of these kinds of services, but I wonder if this is something that makes sense for the city to do on its own.

    It’s also a particularly timely story after the hour of prime time about Waste Management’s boss, Larry O’Donnell, on Undercover Boss.