Single-bin recycling frustrates California's goal to divert trash from landfills
Recycling sounds like an ideal solution to reduce mountains of trash. Facing business and legal issues, local recycling efforts are also plagued by technical and market problems.
Trash typically contains nearly two-thirds of its weight in organic material that could be composted or glass, metal, plastic or paper that can be recycled. Nearly 25 years ago, California passed law to divert recyclable material out of garbage. Some of that effort worked, but recyclables separated by businesses and consumers into blue bins often contain trash that contaminates the good stuff, reducing its value in markets for used plastic, glass, metal and paper.
Sonoma County's trash volume dropped from 375,000 tons in 2007 to 263,000 tons in 2014, still nearly half a billion pounds. At that rate of more than 1,000 pounds per person per year, the 1.3 million people in Sonoma, Solano, Marin and Napa counties toss away more than 1.3 billion pounds of stuff a year.
The Ratto Group, owned by James Ratto, does trash pickup and recycling in Sonoma County with subsidiary companies that sprawl across the region under its North Bay Corporation: Redwood Empire Disposal in Santa Rosa, Santa Rosa Recycling and Collection, Petaluma Refuse and Recycling, Rohnert Park Disposal, Windsor Refuse and Recycling, and Novato Disposal.
Marin Sanitary Service, operated by the Garbarino family, operates from headquarters in San Rafael. Napa Recycling and Waste and Napa County Recycling and Waste serve that county. Sister company Upper Valley Disposal and Recycling serves Yountville, St. Helena and Calistoga. Garaventa Enterprises serves Solano County.
An audit by R3 Consulting Group for the city of Santa Rosa presented last year alleged that Ratto's company did not meet minimum levels of a 45 percent diversion of recyclables, and operated trucks and a recycling facility that fell short of acceptable standards.
The city contract with Ratto expires at the end of 2017 and brought the company about $27 million a year.
“The company's two material recovery facilities are approximately 15 years old, antiquated, and are not able to process the incoming recyclable materials to current industry standards,” the R3 report said. “There is no effective means for metering the incoming materials,” and “we observed numerous rats in the facility,” far more than staff observed in comparable facilities.
One facility was ordered closed, and Ratto Group faces potential fines that could reach $14 million.
The company's response challenged R3's report as “a misleading and incomplete picture” that ignored unfavorable recycling market forces.
“Since China's implementation of “Operation Green Fence in 2013,” said Rick Downey, who resigned in July but was the company's general manager then, “SRRC and its affiliated companies, along with the entire U.S. recycling industry, have faced … double-digit declines in exporting materials such as newsprint and glass.
“Lower market values for separated recycled material drove down revenue while at the same time, rising contamination increased processing costs and residual garbage volume. This was compounded by a prolonged port strike in Oakland, California, that brought material sales almost to a standstill.”
In January, Ratto Group, which has more than 400 employees, announced plans to sell its business to San Francisco-based Recology, an employee-owned company with roughly 3,000 employees. The proposed purchase price will be determined based on due diligence underway.
Meanwhile Ratto Group is trying to respond to the critical audit.
“We are in the process of rebuilding things” at one of the recycling centers, said Jim Salyers, governmental-relations manager for Ratto Group. He expects the facility to be significantly rebuilt by the end of summer.
Businesses and consumers don't separate recyclables properly, and “it has become more of a problem,” Salyers said, after the change to single-stream recycling from the former “stackable three bins,” he said. “People were used to separating the material more. At that time there wasn't much residual” trash that goes into landfills.
Though single-stream recycling started in the 1990s, only about 20 percent of cities used it by 2005. By 2010, nearly two-thirds of communities with recycling had adopted the single-stream process because it encourages more recycling yet relies on people and machines at material recovery facilities to sort whatever arrives. Single-stream recycling tends to break glass as it goes from bin to truck to forklift to conveyor belt. Then glass bits contaminate other recycled goods such as paper and plastic.