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.

As single-stream recycling evolved, “people got more and more confused,” Salyers said. “They would throw things in that weren't” recyclable. “We're trying to tell them what they can put in their blue cans.”

If a material doesn't appear on the sticker affixed to the recycling bin, don't put it in, he said.

Plastic bags play a particularly sticky role in recycling. Sonoma County imposed a ban on plastic bags in 2014.

“They turn into litter,” Salyers said. “When we're dumping them from the can to the truck, they catch the wind and blow away. Then they get into the truck and get contaminated with water or any number of things. They get stuff caught up in them.”

Then in the facility, “plastic bags get wrapped around our machinery,” Salyers said. “When we do maintenance, they get cleaned out and thrown away.”

As an alternative to mixing plastic bags into the single stream, he cited a plastic-bag collection point at Lowe's Home Improvement that allows clean separation and baling of plastic bags.

“The whole plastics situation has changed drastically with oil prices,” Salyers said. “When a barrel of oil was $100, the industry wanted all the recycled plastic it could get. When oil went to $30 a barrel (2015), it was cheaper to use petroleum than recycled plastic.”

In recent days, oil traded just under $50 a barrel.

“Garbage companies find markets” for recyclables, said Patrick Carter, executive director of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, responsible for composting, household hazardous waste and education about recycling. “That has been part of the difficulty here locally. The material has been more contaminated than a lot of markets would like. They are having difficulty finding markets or getting less money for it.”

The Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, formed in 1992 to achieve waste diversion required by state law, is a joint-powers authority of Sonoma County and its nine incorporated cities.

“Everything that goes in the blue bin, from plastics, paper, cardboard, all the way up to metals and glass,” Carter said. U.S. markets exist for metal and glass, but for plastic and paper, “it's typically overseas markets,” he said.

Markets especially for plastics have “definitely gone down. China implemented a policy where they wanted better material” after taking nearly anything in previous years. “That dropped the bottom out of some markets.”

Sorting facilities in Sonoma County don't yet have the capability to extract trash from recycled plastics, he said. Ratto is “having to ship some of it out of the county” because one of its facilities was shut down, Carter said. “They don't have the capacity to handle all of it right here.”

The Ratto Group indicated it would put $5 million into the upgraded facility, Carter said. “I don't know what level of cleanliness they're expecting from that. Contamination has become a much bigger issue.”

Reeducating businesses and consumers about how to recycle properly takes years, he said. “When the economic downturn hit, a lot of people” tried to save money on their garbage bill by switching to smaller trash cans. “If they went down to the smallest trash can, they would be charged less. If they had overflow, some people were unfortunately dumping their garbage into the blue bin and the green bin,” he said, “contaminating those other streams.”

With compost, “if it's not sorted out on the front end, at the compost facility it goes through a grinder then you have tiny pieces of plastic everywhere, throughout the compost,” he said. Organics decreased from 21.4 percent to 17.3 percent in Sonoma County's waste stream from 2007 to 2014, while plastics doubled from 7.4 percent to 14.8 percent.

Technology exists to speed up sorting of recyclables.

“There are optical sorters, compressed air that shoots out, technologies that increase the efficiency,” Carter said, “but there are still going to be people involved in the sorting. Right now it's a very manual process. If they have to speed the conveyor really fast, they're going to miss stuff that's going to contaminate the finished sorted product. If there's a lot of garbage in there, they're going to get a lower value for it and have a harder time finding a market.”

Other recycling companies in surrounding areas with cleaner output find an easier time locating markets for recyclables, Carter said.

“There are markets,” he said. “If a third of it is garbage, that's a whole lot harder to find a home for than if it's less than 10 percent garbage. Manufacturing is happening. People are paying good money for that material. But it has got to be clean if you want top dollar for it.”

James Dunn covers technology, biotech, law, the food industry, and banking and finance. Reach him at or 707-521-4257

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