Oakland’s Garbage Contract Trashes the Environment and Small Users

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Lost in the bitter public battle last year over which of two companies would win lucrative contracts to haul and recycle Oakland’s trash were two less-scrutinized points of information on now surfacing: consumer costs would skyrocket and sustainable green practices would be stymied.

Oakland signed a 10-year, $1-billion contract last September that settled a lawsuit and a debate by splitting trash contracts between two companies. The city originally planned to give all of its trash hauling and recycling business to local California Waste Solutions, but after getting sued by Houston-based Waste Management gave them the garbage contract and the smaller company the recycling.

Judging from the howls of indignation, apparently no one read the fine print. While everyone knew trash hauling prices were going up, few folks realized that single-family residents using the smallest bins would be hit the hardest. It also wasn’t widely circulated that the cost of hauling away composted materials would be higher than regular trash.

The higher compost fees are a mighty encouragement to restaurants and stores to chuck their compostable food products in the bin headed for the landfill. According to East Bay Express, that prompted Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan to blast out emails a couple weeks ago to city officials claiming, “We did NOT approve charging more for composting than for trash. . . . This is NOT in compliance with the Council's approval.”   

Indications are she is wrong. The Express said a supplemental attachment in a packet of legislative documents shows that a 20-gallon bin of trash costs $27.97 a month to pick up, but the same amount of compost costs $33.84. Larger bins have comparable pricing.

Oakland businesses are required to start composting by July 2016 as part of a countywide effort. Previously, they chose their composter and San Francisco-based Recology was a favorite. The new contract requires they use Waste Management. Restaurants complained their bills went up 80 to 100%.  

Waste Management will also benefit from big increases for trash pickup. The San Francisco Chronicle reported on one 10-unit apartment owner who said his bill rose 333%, from $300 to $1,300 a month, and a restaurant owner complaining about a jump from $345 to $625.

Summaries of the contract had telegraphed that big increases were coming because of a four-year freeze after the Great Recession, according to the Express. But not that big. Single-family home fees were slated to go up 23.6%, apartment buildings 30% and businesses 40%.

Turns out, though, that not all single-family homes are treated in an equal fashion. The 23.6% rate jump is for users of 32-gallon bins. Those who use the economical 20-gallon bins will see a 44.5% increase.   

Giving slightly new meaning to the information-technology expression “Garbage in, garbage out,” council members are now complaining that they received inadequate information and bad advice about what was in the crummy ordinance they passed.

Then-interim City Administrator Henry Gardner told the Chronicle that there is some truth to what they are saying. They asked about single-family residential fees when he made his earlier presentation to them, but not businesses. So, if they say, “ ‘I don’t remember that,’ they probably don’t,” he said, “because there wasn’t any discussion.”

The council talked about changing the rates at a meeting last week, but decided to think about this one awhile. They are in recess during August. The new price hikes took effect July 1.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Oaklanders Furious over Unexpected Jumps in Garbage Collection Costs (by Rachel Swan, San Francisco Chronicle) 

Oakland's Trash Program Promotes Waste (by Sam Levin, East Bay Express)

Oakland Still Wading in Trash; Council Delays Action (by Mike Blasky, Oakland Tribune)

Oakland Flips and Returns $1-Billion Garbage Contract to Texas Company (by Ken Broder, AllGov California)

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