Tale of two landfills - Page 5

With a pair of giant corporations vying for control of San Francisco's trash, will our zero waste dreams ever become a reality?

San Francisco has trucked its trash to the Altamont landfill since 1987

The 1932 Refuse Collection and Disposal Ordinance gave the company now calling itself Recology a rare and enviably monopoly on curbside collection, one that had no expiration date and would be difficult to change. "So legally, it's not an option," Assman said.

Retired Judge Quentin Kopp, a former member of the Board of Supervisors and California Legislature, got involved in an unsuccessful effort to break Recology's curbside monopoly in the 1990s when the company then known as NorCal Waste asked for another rate increase. But he found the contractual structure to be almost impossible to break.

"The DPW director examines all the allowable elements and makes recommendations to the Rate Board," Kopp said. "And the Rate Board consists of three people: the chief administrative officer, the controller, and the general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission."

SFPUC General Manager Ed Harrington says Recology's curbside monopoly is unusual compared to other places, but it also makes the company a strong contender to the landfill contract. "It comes down to economies of scale. If you don't have a contract with a facility that does recycling or waste disposal, you can collect the garbage, but where are you going to take it?"

Harrington said the situation was better before Recology purchased Sunset Scavenger, which mostly handled residential garbage, and Golden Gate, which mostly handled commercial garbage. Today, he said, the city has little control over commercial garbage rates or Recology's overall finances. "That made it more difficult, and we only set the rate of residential garbage collection," Harrington observed. "They have never come before the rate appeal board over commercial rates. I have asked who subsidizes whom, the commercial or the residential, and they say they think the commercial. But we have no ability to govern or manage those rates."

WM's Skolnick said a positive outcome of the current contract negotiations would be to break Recology's monopoly on curbside collection. "We have to work to keep our business. That's the competitive process. But we have a competitor that can encroach into our area even though we can't encroach on San Francisco. And they claim to have one of the most competitive rates in the country — but try getting those numbers," he said.

WM's David Tucker added: "We'd like if San Francisco jumped into the 21st century and had a competitive bid process."



The battle between WM's local landfill option and Recology's plan for a longer haul but with more diversion of organic materials is complicated, so much so that the local Sierra Club chapter has yet to take a position.

Glen Kirby of the Sierra Club's Alameda County chapter told the Guardian that the Sierra Club's East Bay, San Francisco, and Yuba chapters are taking a "wait and see what becomes public next" stance for now. But insiders say the club's national position is against landfill gas conversion projects like that at Altamont, possibly favoring Recology's bid.

Recology proponents claim the Sierra Club didn't initially oppose landfill gas conversions because its members in the East Bay benefit from an open space fund that WM pays into as mitigation for a 1980 expansion at the Altamont. And Alberti claimed that WM's analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from the competing waste transportation plans was flawed.

"Their calculation is a shell game. And it relies on Recology using diesel when we are using green biodiesel trains. This is not your grandfather's train any more. One train equals 200 trucks," Alberti said.

But WM's Lewis defends the company's analysis, which showed Recology's bid to be worse for greenhouse gas emissions than WM's.


"Why does San Francisco produce so much trash?" This, or something like it, was posed on the cover of the Guardian.

I read the whole article, but you never answered that question. Why does San Francisco produce so much trash? Is it because of consumers or businesses?

Your pie chart even broke up the different kinds of waste--compost, recyclable, landfill. It didn't mention, though, whether that trash is actually being composted, recycled, or put into landfills.

Perhaps you can write an article that actually addresses the role of its readers.

Posted by Jenna on Jun. 17, 2010 @ 8:11 am

Thanks for the feedback about the headline on the cover and its connection to the story inside the paper.

As the author of the article, I can tell you that my response to the city's plans--after visiting both landfills--was to question how sending our trash hundreds and hundreds of miles away to either location helps San Francisco residents develop an awareness of the towering amounts of trash that this city generates each day.

Without that awareness it's going to be hard, me thinks, to achieve zero waste by 2020.

Now, clearly no one is going to back building a landfill in Golden Gate Park (at least not at this point in time). But imagine if there was a moratorium on sending trash into other communities backyards--and as a result, there was a growing brown mound next to Stow Lake. Imagine how fast our habits would change, and how much harder we would work to pass legislation to make manufacturers take responsibility for excessive packing and non-recyclable products.

In the meantime, I have been asking if the city has a sustainability equation that it can share with its residents that addresses the issue of trash transportation and disposal.
(and so far, I have not got a clear answer to my question.)

For instance, if trains are used to transport our trash, what is that worth in the sustainability equation?
And how far can these trains travel before any perceived benefit, in terms of reduced greenhouse gas emissions, is lost?
Likewise, If trucks are used that use biogas, what is that worth? And how far can these trucks drive before any perceived benefit is lost?
And what about transporting our trash all the way by rail?
And how about using barges to get it to the East Bay?

Likewise, I have questions around the organics recycling program:
Where are these organics taken? And do we dry them ahead of transportation, so they weigh less, or do we carry them fresh? And how far can we transport them, before any benefit in reduced greenhouse gas emissions is lost?

Those questions also bring me back to my point about local processing of our waste: to the extent we handle stuff in our city, we truly reduce emissions and create green jobs.

And to the extent our landfill is local, we also have greater control of the overall waste disposal picture: how will it help the planet if we remove our organics, but then dispose of our waste in landfills where the surrounding municipalities don't use a three-bin system and/or don't have an aggressive organics recycling program?

So, those are some of the issues I tried to explore.
That said, it sounds like an article on who throws away what would be useful--and of interest to our readers, including you. So, thanks, once again, for the feedback,

Posted by sarah on Jun. 17, 2010 @ 4:10 pm

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