An Ecology Center split recycling cart: the center started the nation’s first curbside recycling program in Berkeley nearly 40 years ago.

An independent report commissioned by Berkeley to assess how it could save money on its waste and recycling operations has recommended that the city terminate its contract with the Ecology Center which started the nation’s first curbside recycling program here nearly 40 years ago.

The report’s proposals have been challenged and its methodology criticized by the Ecology Center, as well as by at least one third-party waste management expert. The issue is to be reviewed at a special meeting of the City Council tonight at 5:30pm when the report will be presented, the Ecology Center will have a chance to respond and there will be a public hearing.

The City Council commissioned an assessment of Berkeley’s solid waste division from Irvine-based consultants Sloan Vazquez LLC last fall. Last week, the firm released their report, which recommends, among other actions, that the City of Berkeley terminate the Ecology Center’s curbside recycling program.

The city signed a 10-year contract with the Ecology Center in December 2009. “We are pretty shocked that they want to terminate our contract when the ink is almost still wet,” says Martin Bourque, Executive Director of the Ecology Center.

In a report he will present to the Council tonight, City Manager Phil Kamlarz says that, although the City’s Refuse Fund has made savings of $1.9 million recently — including by cutting 11 full time positions and consolidating some collection routes — costs continue to exceed revenue. Kalmlarz forecasts that the Fund will end the 2011 financial year with a deficit of approximately $1.2 million which could grow to more than $3 million in 2012 and 2013. (Read Kamlarz’s report which includes a copy of the Sloan Vazquez report.]

The Sloan Vazquez report states that taking recycling in-house would save the city $1,469,440 a year with a one-time capital cost of $1,540,000. Its other recommendations include outsourcing recycling materials processing, and internalizing the operation of the Buyback/Drop‐off operation, currently handled by a community conservation center (saving $910,017); and switching to single-person automated side-loader trucks on both residential and commercial routes (potentially saving a total of $2,237,400).

Bourque says he sees significant problems with the assumptions made in the Sloan Vazquez report, principally that the city would be able to save money by bringing operations in-house. Citing two specific examples he says: “The city waste supervisor is already overburdened and they are suggesting doubling his workload. And, at the moment, the city doesn’t carry any overheads but that will increase their costs by 26%.”

Bourque also has issues with the way the consultation process was handled — the consultants chose the day the Ecology Center was rolling out its new recycling split-carts last October to observe the program in action, which according to Bourque was atypical of its service. He adds that offers made by the Ecology Center to meet with the consultants or share data were declined.

Ultimately, however, Bourque says the issue is about “how to close a $3m budget gap”. Instrumental to this, he believes, is a need to restructure rates. “There are no fees built in to customer rates for recycling and compost,” he says. Part of the problem is that many Berkeley residents have been switching to smaller, less expensive carts, which is good news for the environment but doesn’t help fund the waste program. “The structure needs to be repaired and a 15% increase across the board is not the solution,” says Bourque.

In his report, Kamlarz concludes that if no cost-saving measures are implemented, the Council has the option of considering a rate increase. “No matter how the rates would be restructured, in order to overcome the structural deficit, the average increase is projected to be at least 15% for residential and commercial customers,” he writes.

Bourque says there is clearly a need to incentivize residents to produce less waste but that Berkeley is providing a higher service than in neighboring cities such as Oakland and El Cerrito at comparable fees.

Berkeley resident Steven Sherman, who is President of Applied Compost Consulting and has consulted for the city on waste matters, believes the Sloan Vasquez study has “terrible policy implications for the City”. In a March 3 letter to the Council he outlines why he believes the City should not accept the report’s analysis as valid.

Berkeley’s Zero Waste Commission has also condemned the study, describing it, in a February 28 report, as “incomplete and missing information, cost-benefit analyses, and a lack of an adequate and inclusive process”.

At tonight’s regular City Council meeting a 7:00pm, the council will hear an assessment of the split-cart recycling program introduced to Berkeley in October last year and managed by the Ecology Center. The report by Andrew Clough, Acting Director, Public Works, states that the new recycling cart program has proved to be “an example of successful collaboration among multiple contractors and City departments”. It concludes that there is now a better, more efficient collection of sorted recyclables. “Comparing December 2009 to December 2010 the increase is 66% for bottles and cans, and 11% for paper and cardboard.”

Bourque says that the Ecology Center is willing to sit down with the city soon to work on finding more efficiencies and cost savings. “But we can’t begin with the expectation that savings will be made by taking services in-house,” he says.

Following tonight’s meeting, Kamlarz is scheduled to make budget recommendations on this issue to the city on March 22.

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. EBGuy,
    I hear that the Davis Street Transfer Station in San Leandro is getting an EIR done to build a big methane digester there, too. I anticipate that these digesters are the future of our municipal green waste. However, there is is still an end product after the energy has been captured, which can be added to traditional composting operations…

  2. To be clear, when I said cover the cost of financing the cans I mean cover the cost of financing the blight blue bins.

  3. For reference from the City Auditors report. Note, this is for City employees; I don’t know how this compares to Ecology Center drivers.
    Solid Waste Truck Driver
    Salary: $66,336
    Benefits: $36,649 (55.25% of salary)
    Total Compensation = $102,985
    — —
    Workers’ Comp: $11,562
    (17.43% of salary)
    Total Labor Cost = $114,547

    Also, I’m curious if the December numbers were cherry picked. The 66% increase in bottles and cans surpassed my expectations. Unfortunately, we don’t know how this translates to a dollar amount. Is it enough to even cover the cost of financing the cans? Does it help with the deficit caused by downsizing of bins and increasing costs?

    I’m going to disagree with Alan slightly on one point (but I believe his general direction is correct). Food scraps should not be composted. If they can be easily diverted (which is a trick with residential collection, as everything goes into the green bin) they should first be put in a methane digester for a local source of natural gas. Coincidentally, we’ve got a facility nearby that does just that. EBMUD actually purchases food waste from SF to help run their digesters. They are scheduled to be net energy producers sometime this year.

  4. I thought this might bring the zero waste folks out of their caves. “Recycling and composting do cost money to pick up and process, but they cost less than trash.” Oh, really? Then why do we have to pay an extra fee for recycling? The incremental costs for including paper and other carbonaceous material in the regular waste stream are relatively small compared with this separate and very complex process of collecting these materials and (mostly) shipping them to China.
    “Then, the organic materials will rot in the landfill – because landfills are not impervious,…” Well, if you know of such landfills–report them–they’re violating RCRA Subtitle C, not to mention state laws. Modern anthropologists are usually surprised at how dry modern landfills are when they drill into them. Some older landfills can and do generate methane which can be collected and used as a fuel. In fact, we should probably consider injecting water into well sealed modern landfills to intentionally generate methane as an alternative fuel source.

    “Also, now that you’ve thrown away all your resources, you need to go extract virgin materials to make new ones” Precisely – let’s grow trees-sustainably–and use them to make paper and other products that we then sequester permanently in landfills. Similarly, plastics should be thrown away. Plastics come from oil and this is a net loss, however, we do not end up wasting more energy on the highly inefficient plastic recycling process that uses more energy (oil equivalent) that went into making the original plastic.

    You want to help the environment: put all your paper and organic wastes in the garbage, and for heaven’s sakes don’t recycle plastic – the children of China thank you. And don’t put food wastes down the garbage disposal. Most of the carbon gets released as CO2 either in the secondary treatment plant or in the land application of sludge (“biosolids”).

    Yet another reference re: burying carbon “Potential world garbage and waste carbon sequestration” Craig S. Marxsen. “To offset the carbon dioxide released by fossil fuels, a proposed sequestration strategy relies on burying garbage and waste in landfills. This paper roughly estimates the current annual world supply of carbonaceous waste to be 35.5 billion metric tons and to contain about 18 billion metric tons of carbon. If landfills received all of this waste, sequestration of more than 5.6 billion metric tons of carbon seems theoretically possible—an amount well in excess of the 3.3 billion metric tons which the atmosphere is currently gaining.”

    Similar sequestration recommendations have come from our friends up at LBL. But don’t let this deter you zero waste folks from your appointed rounds – the planet you destroy may be your own.

  5. I have yet to see anyone suggest a real way to stop recycling poaching. Is it even illegal?

    The new bins are worthless. Poachers simply tip them over and empty them on the ground to get the things at the bottom.

  6. “…The stink in my city isn’t the garbage, it’s the inept Council, the corrupt staff and the back room deals…”

    Amen! and Hallelujah!
    I hear the sound of newly radicalized political consciousness rising. Until Berkeleyside arrived it’s a sound we’d have had a hell of a time hearing.

    “…Let’s remember that Zero Waste is the goal and ensure we are looking well forward about the future possibilities, not just the status quo.”

    When the cost of these crusades, the fees and ad valorem taxes, finally squeeze out the last inch of the city’s financial slack: Then will the great ambivalent middle rise up to demand an accounting?

    Our old political machine and it’s visionary consultants (including but not limited to: education, ecology, land use, riparian issues(!)…) are long used to easy money and unquestioning acquiescence. No longer. They may want to prepare a presentation of the independently verifiable benefits of their forty year reign.

    And, please, provide a chart showing how the noble sacrifice of our “here and now” for their “there and then” has vastly improved our quality of life. Include such success stories as:

    Replacing garbage collection with ‘waste management’ that invades our neighborhoods with three times the number of smoke spewing, noise polluting, collection trucks plus can ghouls and bin blight.

    Having the highest ratio of city employees to residents, and a citizenry that considers city services poor at best.

    Tacitly accepting BUSD registration fraud while attempting to close the achievement gap by dumbing down the curriculum.

    Encouraging the university to spend $1.5M (USD) for ten cords of firewood at a time when students are asked to bear ever more costs (the stadium tree sit).

    Insuring the impartial defense of free speech by giving Code Pink a parking permit in front of the recruiting office.

    Entertaining proposals to break open the streets to expose creeks, when we can’t repave the collapsing ones we have.

    Power to Some New People!

  7. Let’s start with the idea that I hardly trust any financial report from Phil Kamlarz. After the grossly inaccurate financial report last year that formed the basis for his raise, and seemed to fool all the City Council, I’m not sure anyone could take his recommendations seriously. Second, I agree that trash and recycling pick up should not necessarily be a profit center. And I also agree that bringing the service in-house would not necessarily lower costs or improve service. Look at the permit center, planning/zoning department for proof. Third, Berkeley provides a full service, more than most municipalities. We like to lead the way, but we don’t pay attention to things that could lessen the cost. I know some neighbors like to let poachers take the recyclables, but if my property taxes are raised because costs are not covered, due to the most valuable items being poached, this results in just another form of subsidy that I end up paying for, that is not identified for what it is. I don’t know the best answer, but I certainly don’t trust the City to find it, given their record. The Ecology Center operates based on principles that the workers share. I don’t know if we could say that about City employees. I for one would like to see more enforcement of poachers. If I can see them operating at night and early morning hours, why is it so hard to cite them? Our soft hearts are clouding the issues.

  8. Tim, you left out that the paper cited about “burying trees” is what we might charitably call “highly speculative” — it does not and is not meant to state any conclusions whatsoever for public policy about paper recycling in Berkeley. (I was kind of assuming @not was yanking our chain but, if not – yes, the whole plan is bogus in many ways.)

  9. That is a totally misleading comment by Not Gruntled. Recycling and composting do cost money to pick up and process, but they cost less than trash. Throwing recyclables in the trash will cost the City more money, because we will then pay to throw these resources in the landfill. Then, the organic materials will rot in the landfill – because landfills are not impervious, and anyway they will start decomposing before the landfill cell is capped – giving off methane gas, an extraordinarily powerful greenhouse gas at least 23x as bad as carbon dioxide. Also, now that you’ve thrown away all your resources, you need to go extract virgin materials to make new ones…and this is the biggest negative effect of wasting our recyclables and organics.

    Remember, the reasons that there’s a deficit are basically: 1) a decrease in construction activity and the corresponding decrease in revenue at the Berkeley Transfer Station, 2) a decrease in commercial business due to the recession and 3) a trend in the residential sector towards smaller trash carts, thus lower revenues across the board.

    In your trash bill, you pay for recycling and composting pickup too – but it’s wrapped in and you are incentivized to reduce waste. But, trash still costs more than recycling. We in the Zero Waste field are working on ways to continue to be able to incentivize recycling and composting through “pay as you throw” trash rates, but also to incorporate proper funding for the recycling and composting infrastructure. Recycling & composting save money, jobs, resources and energy…and paying $30/month for the comprehensive service provided sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

  10. Why not consider the option that saves us $2,000,000 per year and is almost certainly better for the environment? We only put out wastes that actually have value. The “informal” recyclers pick them up at no cost to us and without huge noisy trucks lumbering through the streets. (OK, I admit some of the shopping cart guys are noisy.) And we don’t even need to pay for their retirement. The other “recyclables” with limited value or negative value go in the garbage. By negative value, I mean a full cost accounting showing a net loss economically, and possibly socially and environmentally. The previously recycled materials are mostly organics: cardboard, paper, plastics– and these go to the landfill. Landfills are now required to have an impervious cover and liners. The wastes should remain dry which means they won’t break down and release carbon dioxide. Thus, the organic (carbonaceous) material is effectively sequestered which is a net benefit from a global warming standpoint. Various researchers have suggested burying trees – burying tree products is just as good. See Ning Zeng (2008). “Carbon sequestration via wood burial”.Carbon Balance and Management.

    Oh…some of social and environmental costs of recycling. Plastics get sent to China. Some may get recycled—think small children sorting shredded plastics by color, some get made into fuel in factories with incredible health and safety problems, and some get incinerated to make energy and probably not at the correct temperatures to minimize dioxin formation.

    And the side benefits – we spend less time sorting and storing these materials and we avoid the negative aesthetic impacts of these ugly recycling containers. My guess is that in the next few years many programs will shut down as the true costs and environmental impacts of recycling are documented. Except maybe Berkeley’s – after all, what would the Zero Waste Commission do?

  11. Actually the Berkeley was not the first city with curbside recycling in the country. Modesto California had curbside at least a year before Berkeley.

  12. I have not yet read the report, but why not put the entire contract out to bid to private companies to see if they can do it for less? Does trash pick up have to be performed by the City?

    Also, can we close the trash center on second street? Smells bad, contaminates the local water and contributes to bad air quality at the nearby parks. It also appears to be a major money loser.

  13. @ Bruce — Sheesh! That sounds awful! I can’t believe anyone was able to suggest trucks like that for Berkeley with a straight face.

  14. (When I describe our refuse collection folks as “guys”, please understand that in the gender neutral sense.)

  15. @Name, just such a design is what the ecology center already uses in many cases. Works fine. The consultant report, contrary to what you are saying, aims specifically to have one-person trucks for refuse. The kind side loader you are talking about negates that one man advantage and, worse:

    For refuse, the auto-loading backloaders the City currently uses permit 3 man trucks which on dense streets work out very nicely. Two-man side-loaders would likely have a significant disadvantage or at best be break even. With 3 man back loaders, 2 get out and start pulling carts up to the truck and putting them back. The truck can take two at a time from the side-neutral back end. With a side loader, one side of the street (at least) becomes way less efficient or else the truck is traveling twice as many miles (so pay 2 guys twice as much as 3 guys).

  16. From the “rules” for one of the towns in a link above:
    Set-out Placement: …. Carts shall be placed within three feet of the curb, but not in the street. Carts shall not be placed within six feet of trees, mailboxes, power poles, or other curbside impediments to either side of the cart. Carts shall not be placed within 10 feet of parked cars, as the automated collection vehicle needs room to maneuver the automated arm to collect the cart without risk to personal property.

    I live on a fairly narrow street in the hills that has only a few intermittent curbs, no sidewalks, and has vegetation adjacent to the street in many places. Also usually a number of parked cars along the way.

  17. I don’t see a lot of data or detail from the Ecology Center about the flaws in the study. But, I don’t believe replacing EC employees with SEIU union employees will save me any money.

    Did you know that the City Council increased garbage rates by $3 a month in June, calling it a “diversion fee.” Claim it’s temporary, just for a year. Wanna bet?

    Did you read the article about theft of recyclables in June’s East Bay Express? Documents the utter failure of the Council and Police to address theft of recyclables.

    And how was this consultant selected? Well, the Council appointed a blue ribbon committee to select a consultant. Who was on the blue ribbon committee? Couple of city staffers from the Solid Waste Department and Public Works, and a couple of Union representatives. Imagine, public servants trying to expand their empires, and unions trying to get more work for their members.

    The stink in my city isn’t the garbage, it’s the inept Council, the corrupt staff and the back room deals.

    And the other problem? Berkeley voters returned EVERY SINGLE INCUMBENT to office on the Council in November. Happy with the status quo?

  18. A modified version of the side-loading trucks – which they’ve used in most of the other cities I’ve lived in – would work fine in Berkeley.

    With the version I’ve seen used the operator wheels the bin onto a platform, which is raised on a mechanical arm and dumped into the truck.

    It’s not as fast as some other designs, and usually requires two men working each garbage truck, but it greatly reduces the risk of injury to waste disposal employees.

  19. Could we close down the places where the poachers sell their aluminum cans? I went by the place in Oakland and personally saw the money go straight from the poachers to the drug dealers.

  20. I think automated pick up is a brilliant solution. Not only can we reduce the city’s workforce, but with weekly collection on a one side of the street per day we can institute rule & fines similar to street sweeping, but they would cover all the city and apply over 4 times as often.
    A cash cow for the City!

  21. That YouTube video of the side-loading truck is GREAT:
    –wide flat streets,
    –approximately zero parked cars
    –sidewalks immediately adjacent to the street
    –no planted parking strips or large trees or hedges
    –all underground utilities,
    –no hills,
    –no sharp curves.
    Those places are so clearly not Berkeley!! We could all go outside on our street on garbage day and take pictures of the realistic problems that would be faced by those trucks if Berkeley is crazy enough to buy them….

  22. I’ve got to agree with Bruce on the trucks – wonderful as they are they seem to be best suited to nice flat properly placed cans. How often does the driver have to get out to pull the can closer to the curb. As to adding city staff to bring this work in house – I may agree with G in that you’ve got to be very careful there with personnel costs – the big factor in the city budget. It won’t solve the scavenger problem and I expect, in the long run it won’t solve the deficit problem. As a side note, we switched to the smaller cans because we had less trash.

    Perhaps there are some eager UC students who would like to do a study now that the new blue cans are in place.

  23. Here are a few additional items on automated garbage collection, including success,failure, rules, and more rules. Having read these, I will concede my concurrence with Bruce may have bee premature or under-informed, but I think a critical eye is nonetheless called for.

  24. We could drop a few large containers strategically around town in semi-convenient places (like where the old recycling center was at Safeway on Shattuck Avenue, and/or next to the Berkeley Bowl). That way people that really want to see their CRV container money go to the city can drop off the bottles when they go grocery shopping. If the containers get filled up quickly, we could add more, and/or empty them more frequently. We should tweak the our system to do something so the City gets more of the most valuable trash. Otherwise, the most cost-effective thing to do will be to cancel the whole recycling system and go back to trashing everything.

  25. berkopinionator, those are dreadfully inconvenient for household recycling and highly vulnerable to resentful sabotage.

  26. Large pilfer-proof containers should be distributed throughout the city, as they do in Spain. If we had some of these, people could walk half a block or two to deposit their CRV bottles and cans and make sure the City actually gets the money. There is one small hole at the top, and it is almost impossible to reach in and get anything unless its almost totally full. The only way to open it up is with a special truck with a hydraulic arm that lifts it up and opens the bottom. No theft!!

  27. Kudos to Bruce for finding that video. Seldom as I agree with him, I think he’s spot on regarding these trucks. Considering I can’t even walk around town without getting attacked by plants, it’s hard to see how this robotic system would work smoothly. Notice also that never once in this video do you see mid-sidewalk utility poles. Add parked cars to the mix and implementing this system goes from unrealistic to laughable.

  28. Here ya’ go, state of the art man. Think this will work on ____% of Berkeley streets?

    Plus, I love thinking about what happens when one of these extra-complicated trucks (or more than one) goes out of service at the same time — an issue this vendor issue frantically trying to sell around.

  29. Amusingly, the consultant plan we paid $75,000 for proposes (as a major component of cost savings) switching refuse and compost collection over to 1-man robotic trucks of a sort I can’t imagine working at all well on Berkeley’s many parking-crowded, heavily planted streets. (This is not to mention that the report fails to provide any serious basis for believing the ongoing cost benefits even if they were to work as advertised). I’d really like to see a full city demo of those trucks.

    Nice kind of consulting work. Get your fee. Come up with a cut-and-paste report (oh, perhaps this one isn’t literally cut-and-paste) that includes such things as a lot of up-front costs and a lot of promised long term savings. Roll rapidly through a few towns telling each successive one to look at how the earlier one’s are projecting savings…. and then be forgotten and unaccountable before anyone can actually measure the success or failure. Because once upon a time you, Mr. or Ms. Consultant did manage a tight ship.

    “Because only an expert can solve the problem.” — Laurie Anderson

  30. The story and comments so far have focused on the “upstream” (pickup) aspect of these programs and not on the “downstream” (ultimate destinations) of what we gather. Let’s remember that Zero Waste is the goal and ensure we are looking well forward about the future possibilities, not just the status quo.

    Though I actually don’t think there’s a technical solution for everything, this decade will see a revolution in our ability to convert organic “waste” (including lignocellulosic biomass that doesn’t compost easily) into valuable fuels like isobutanol and chemical feedstocks for plastics. Several new companies beyond the lab stage are proving what will be practicable in the future.

    We certainly need to collect, sort and separate our wastestream as efficiently and greenly as possible. But if we start thinking “proto-biofuels” instead of just “trash” the game can be very different — and perhaps Berkeley can pioneer again.

    Our current materials recovery businesses would be considered “protected uses” in the pending new West Berkeley Plan. Whatever happens to curbside pickup, let’s still protected those spaces — we may need them.

  31. In Berkeley we save our cans and give them to our favorite poacher. That way atleast you give ito the person you want. Otherwise there is no way the city will get it, unless you wait for the truck and hand it to them.

  32. Poachers are well equipped: flashlights and trashgrabbers to get the stuff at the bottom of those bins.

  33. The new carts certainly haven’t cut down on poaching in my neighborhood.

    We have several little old Asian ladies and a couple mentally disabled homeless men who compete for recycling where I live.

  34. Just wanted to compliment you on this article. Good summary of the situation and links to original docs. Thanks!

  35. It sounds like the new carts do cut down on poaching, and I hope that that is the case. I’m sure part of the problem is that recycables don’t have much market value. One approach I would want to try is to eliminate buyback programs in the county, because that obviously encourages poaching, the same way buying metals has encouraged theft.

  36. Costs continue to exceed revenue, but when was trash and recycling ever supposed to be a money making venture for cities??? Isn’t this one reason why we pay property taxes?

    It’s supposed to be mostly fee-based, not property-tax based. (Perhaps some long term capital investments and such come from the general fund, I don’t know.) It shows up on your property tax bill but it is not a property tax. It is a service fee based on utilization.
    That’s the main reason people I know switched to smaller bins (for general refuse, not recycling) is that they needed to save money on their household budget — it wasn’t because of any new found dedication to the environment.
    That aside, to the extent the complaints about the study are at all accurate, I would agree that it sounds like some serious clown stew going on over at City Hall. I wonder how much Berkeley paid for that study. Looks like about $75,000 not counting staff time.

  37. How much recycling revenue is lost to sidewalk poachers? Most of the stuff worth anything is gone well before the trucks make their rounds.

  38. Oh boy, this is going to be fodder.

    But wait, the recycling program was analyzed the day that an entirely new pick up system was rolled out, and the consultants had no interest in talking to the Ecology Center, who runs the recycling program, throughout the assessment? Then by any metric that is a deeply flawed report.

    Costs continue to exceed revenue, but when was trash and recycling ever supposed to be a money making venture for cities??? Isn’t this one reason why we pay property taxes?

  39. You know, most of these deficits is NOT because Berkeley is recycling too much and has too little trash.

    Like the rest of America, it’s about outrageously expensive personnel costs.

    Hiring one employee is EXPENSIVE.

    We need to cut jobs.