The efforts of Berkeley residents to separate their newsprint from glass bottles appears to have a downside.

Berkeley city officials are considering imposing a fee to pick up recyclables, according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. So many residents are recycling that they have been able to switch to smaller garbage cans, and the drop in revenue has created a $4 million deficit for the waste collection department. Until now, the city has been offering curbside recycling for free.

The Chronicle reported today that the City Council will consider the fee in May as part of its budget negotiations.

Berkeley is one of the few cities in the Bay Area to have its own waste collection. Perhaps it is time to contract out this service?

Frances Dinkelspiel

Frances Dinkelspiel (co-founder) is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California,...

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  1. The new recycling fee was instituted on the latest bill and provided the motivation to downsize our main garbage bin to half it’s original size. Net result: -$20 per month. Good for my pocketbook; not so much for the solid waste management budget.

  2. (I’m not an expert, just a curious citizen.)

    Would the Berkeley curbside recycling program be more cost effective if it were able to pick up more valuable materials before the “poachers” get to them? I can’t speak for the whole city, but near the Berkeley Bowl, it seems that most all glass and aluminum is removed from curbside bins by shopping cart poachers before the recycling trucks arrive. On my street, carts make multiple passes–at all hours of the night and morning–and what’s left is usually paper and plastic. A large share of the reader comments on the Chronicle article discussed above seem to be concerned about the poaching issue. But what is its real effect?

    Here is a link to the City of Berkeley’s page about Recycling and Poaching:

    The city say that poaching from shopping carts is permitted, at least in part because “According to the Recycling Center, the poachers operating out of grocery carts have little impact on the total recycling collected.”

    That claim is quite surprising from my local perspective. I’m looking forward to hearing more data on this point (as well as others, such as the efficacy of two person trucks).

  3. EBGuy, thanks for posting the link to the Terrain magazine article. Really interesting!

  4. I’m not affiliated with the Ecology Center (and don’t know Amy), but I highly recommend her Compost Confidential article in Terrain magazine. It gives a detailed account of what happens to items in your green bin — and has quite a few surprises (many of the hair pulling variety). Most importantly, it asks the question: Should we really be composting our kitchen scraps, or anaerobically digesting them to produce (a local! renewable!) source of natural gas. This, I think, highlights why local control of the waste stream could become even more important in the future.

  5. Porcelina, I think it’s just factually false to say that neighboring Cities are collecting trash and recycling more efficiently. They just have a different rate structure, which is what Berkeley is proposing to do. It’s basic math – the volume of stuff you put on the curb hasn’t changed, but the amount of it in the trash bin has decreased, so you get charged less — but they still have to deal with the same volume of stuff. Of course they’ve got a shortfall. Rates should be based on total volume, no mater what color container you put it in.

    For those of you wanting to avoid the night time recycling poachers, just put your recycling out in the morning on your way to work. It’s not rocket science.

  6. I don’t mind paying a fee for for recycling, but I do mind subsidizing an inefficient system that has no accountability. It’s not fair. We are conscientiously recycling every last scrap and dutifully following the sorting and filtering instructions that our neighbor cities don’t even require. We are now asked to foot the bill, because it turns out that Berkeley’s system is costlier than everyone else’s. Why is that?

    I am starting to get the impression that the Ecology Center, which has long handled all our residential recycling, is calling the shots here. Has the EC become so powerful that our city government is too fearful to consider more cost-effective alternatives that might require the EC to cut back its payroll? Our neighboring cities copied our recycling program, but they have now figured out how to do it more efficiently. Why can’t we learn from them, as they learned from us? Must we cling to methods that we now can’t afford?

    I have been a faithful Berkeley recycler long enough to remember the letter writing campaigns to get the Ecology Center to finally agree to curbside pickup for all recycling, to finally agree to accept the plastic milk jugs everybody was tossing into the garbage, to finally agree to sharing its farmers market space with sports fields for our kids. Don’t get me wrong – I like the markets and I am proud of Berkeley’s history of recycling. But I think it’s time for the City and the Ecology Center to give us a better explanation about what’s going on with our tax dollars and garbage fees. We shouldn’t have to find out about it by reading the SF Chronicle and listening to KQED Forum (which by the way Berkeley officials declined to participate in this morning!) Please explain to us, City of Berkeley and Ecology Center, why an additional fee is the only way to fix this.

  7. Exactly, Alicia, and then I would not be woken up several times a night by poachers. It is easy to take a load of recyclables to the 2nd St station, I would make the trip on the same day I shop in El Cerrito at Costco.

  8. If Berkeley were to charge a fee for recycling, this would be a big incentive for me to do it myself. Why should I pay the City when the poachers remove anything of value? I would probably let our recyclables build up longer and make trips about once a month to whatever recycling center the poachers go to. Then I would get the cash. Also, I see the City charging a fee as great incentive for smalltime local entrepreneurs to develop their own less expensive services. The City is going to start to see that the more it tries to tax the residents for what, at least on the surface, seems like less and less service, the City will begin to see it’s ability to raise funds through things like bond measures decline. After all, Berkeleyans pay just about the highest tax rate in the state.

  9. Berkeley recycling only picks up #1 and #2 plastics because there is no market for those other plastics. Those other Bay Area cities pick up the other numbered plastics, but they are not being recycled. They are being picked out and sent to the landfill. But customers demand it, so they collect those plastics in recycling trucks to make the customers feel good.

    Berkeley’s solid waste deficit problem is the rate structure, not the service. Recycling and composting have been very popular; people are proudly creating less and less trash. Recycling was initially offered for free to incentivize the practice. The program is a victim of its own popularity. Because residents’ bills are tied to the size of the trash can, revenues are going down.

    Why shouldn’t people pay for recycling? It’s the same service as trash collection: a truck comes to your house and takes it away for you. Recycling and composting are cheaper to provide than garbage disposal because they have an end product that can be sold. That end product fluctuates in price, so there are years when recycling makes a nice profit for the city, and other years when it breaks even or costs money. But it always makes more economic sense than landfilling.

    I’ve been disappointed by the news coverage on this because writers have spun it to be a problem specific to Berkeley, or a verdict on recycling, when it’s not. Many cities are grappling with this problem if they employ similarly flawed billing structures. The reason why Berkeley is being called out is because we do our own recycling, so the problem is more transparent.

    Contracting out the service would not solve this problem. It would, however, send a lot of profits to corporate headquarters in other states.


  10. Frances:

    Residential recycling in Berkeley is already outsourced to the Ecology Center, a non-profit corporation.

    I think that this is part of the problem. Every week, we have 3 big trucks each with 2 person crews come by each address to pick up 3 streams of discards. It is unclear why we can’t have fewer trucks that handle more than one stream of material. I recall that when recycling in Berkeley first began decades ago, there was a proposal that the City handle all the streams so that it would be easier to consolidate the trips. I don’t recall the exact details.

    The city staff’s statement, as reported by the SF Chronicle, that poaching makes little difference in recycling baffles me. I’m sure that it will baffle many in Berkeley who see the many scavengers go through their neighborhoods every week. I don’t know what the staff is basing their conclusion on. Perhaps it is based on the weight of material recycled by the City and not the market value. Poachers take the material with the highest recycling value that would also bring the City coffers the most in the market. That material is generally the lightest but not always.

    Recycling is the process of finding the economic value in discards. Sometimes it is by offering incentives like CRV, but a lot more is by making it easier to sell recyclables by the creation of buy back centers in communities. Making recyclables easier to sell makes recyclables more valuable by reducing the cost of gathering and transporting the material. The sorting of the recyclables in the home increases the value of recyclables by decreasing the cost of processing it. If it weren’t possible for poachers to easily gather and sell the material, there would be little value for them. If there weren’t an easy and economical way for a poacher to sell bundles of used newspapers, they wouldn’t be poaching the bundles that I put out on the sidewalk.

    As the market for recyclables grows, recyclable materials will increase in value. And poaching will grow with it. It seems to me inherent as a part of the growth of recycling. If we don’t come to grips with this dynamic, the City sponsored program will always be losing the most valuable materials to the poachers and will always be losing revenues that could have been gained.

  11. I would actually pay a small fee if Berkeley expanded/updated their recycling program. I hate that Berkeley won’t take plastics (especially #5) that other Bay Area cities recycle–for free.