Waste not

City officials delay garbage contract decision while they seek more information

The entrance to Recology's recycling center at Pier 96, which the city is considering expanding


The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has delayed consideration of a city waste disposal contract while officials investigate a broad range of questions ranging from logistical considerations to whether to break up Recology's current garbage collection monopoly.

Is it feasible to move the city's entire infrastructure for waste and recycling to the Port of San Francisco? Would it be more sustainable to barge or rail the city's trash directly from the port rather than drive it across the Bay Bridge to Oakland every day? Considering that recyclables get shipped from Oakland to Asia anyway, why not send them by barge rather than truck? Or is that idea just an empty gesture since recycles, mostly paper products, consitute only 10 percent of the waste stream?

Some of these questions are being studied as part of a survey the San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) is trying to complete by April, others as part of a longer-term investigation by the Department of Environment (DoE). At LAFCO's Feb. 28 meeting, commissioners requested a survey of how other jurisdictions in the Bay Area procure trash collection, hauling, and disposal contracts.

Although the studies differ in scope and duration, both were triggered by a Feb. 3 Budget and Legislative Analyst (BLA) report that revealed that the annual cost to ratepayers of San Francisco's waste system is $206 million. Yet only the $11 million landfill contract is being put out to competitive bid (see "Garbage Curveball," 02/08/11).

The BLA report revealed that a 1932 ordinance intended to address territorial disputes around trash collection and transportation in San Francisco ultimately gave Recology (formerly NorCal Waste) a monopoly on all post-collection recycling, consolidation, composting, long-distance transport to landfills, and waste disposal contracts. The report triggered a political firestorm by recommending that the city replace existing trash collection and disposal laws with legislation that would require competitive bidding on all waste contracts and that rates for residential and commercial trash collection become subject to Board of Supervisors approval.

Faced with these recommendations, the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee asked Feb. 9 for a two-month delay on DoE's proposal to award Recology a 10-year contract to dispose of San Francisco's municipal solid waste at Recology's Ostrom Road landfill Yuba County when its contract at Waste Management's Altamont landfill expires.

DoE officials predict the WM contract will expire in 2015. But company representatives estimate the contract will last much longer, based on reduced volumes that San Francisco has been trucking to Altamont.

Sup. John Avalos, a LAFCO commissioner, requested that the LAFCO study include a map to give folks "a visual" of landfill locations throughout the greater Bay Area. "And there's been an interesting discussion about the use of barging," Avalos said, pointing to the flotilla of barges involved in building the Bay Bridge, which could be repurposed when that jobs ends. "A new maritime use could help the port raise revenue and reinvigorate other maritime uses on its property."

At that point in the hearing, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, the vice chairman of LAFCO, floated his "alternative barge plan," under which only recyclables would get sent across the Bay to Oakland. Noting that he has met with Port Director Monique Moyer and Office of Economic and Workforce Development staff, Mirkarimi said that "the port is not equipped to deal with solid waste. But it is equipped to deal with recyclables, so this is something we should pursue."

But Sup. David Campos, the chairman of LAFCO, clarified that the survey should still include a study of barging all trash. "Barging is complicated, but this is about providing basic information," he said.