Is Recology fudging the figures on how much SF waste is being diverted from the landfill, with the complicity of city officials?
The green-bin waste is shipped to a Recology facility where it's turned into compost, a process that involves sifting through giant screens. But some of what gets processed, known as "overs" because it isn't fine enough to drop through the screens, is routinely transferred to a nearby landfill, where it's spread atop the trash pile. Once again, this six-inch topper of neutralizing material is known as "alternative daily cover."
Although Recology could convert 100 percent of its green-bin waste into soil-nourishing compost, the practice of using partially processed green-bin waste for "alternative daily cover" is cheap — and it's perfectly legal under California law. Roughly 10 percent of what gets tossed into the compost bins is used in this way, Recology confirmed.
"There are some people who will say using green waste isn't really diversion," acknowledged Jeff Danzinger, a spokesperson with CalRecycle, which oversees recycling programs in California counties. "There's some people who say we should stop that practice because that just incentivizes a landfill solution for green waste. But if somebody's saying green waste shouldn't go into a landfill and get counted as diversion, it's an opinion."
Nor is it something the city objects to. The Department of the Environment is aware of this practice, Recology's Potashner told the Bay Guardian. Yet the city agency has never raised formal concerns about it, despite a mandate under its composting program agreement that the company use green-bin waste for the highest and best possible use.
But there's no incentive for anyone in city government to complain: Recology may legally count this discarded material as "diverted" in official reporting, thus edging it closer to an annual bonus payment. San Francisco, meanwhile, may count it as part of the 80 percent that was successfully diverted — thus edging it closer to the ambitious Zero Waste program goal.
"It's great PR to say you're the highest recycling," noted the person who was familiar with the company, but wasn't part of the lawsuit. "It's almost a movement more than reality. But who's really watching for the public on these numbers? There's no watchdog. It's all about bragging rights."
Recology is "a political business"
Recology's political connections in San Francisco run deep. Years ago, when former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown served as speaker of the California Assembly, he also worked as a lawyer for Recology, which was then known as Norcal Waste Systems.
Campaign finance archives show that when Brown ran for mayor in 1995, he received multiple campaign contributions from Norcal employees in what appeared to be a coordinated fashion.
Brown continues to be influential in the city's political landscape due to his close relationship with Mayor Ed Lee, who himself came under scrutiny in his capacity as head of the Department of Public Works in 1999 when he was accused of granting Norcal a major rate increase as a reward for political donations to Brown.