Editorial: Better options for garbage


One of the biggest, most important municipal contracts in San Francisco is never put out to bid. It's awarded to the same company, automatically, and has been since 1932. Recology Inc. (formerly known as Sunset Scavenger, Envirocal, and Norcal Solid Waste Systems) is the only outfit licensed to pick up trash in the city. It's also the only company that has a monopoly guaranteed in the City Charter.

Its residential rates are set every five years by an agency almost nobody's ever heard of, the Refuse Collection and Disposal Rate Board, which consists of the city administrator, the controller, and the general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Commercial rates are set by Recology alone; there's no appeal or oversight.

San Francisco is the only major city in the United States that contracts out solid waste collection to a private company. And it may be the only city of any size that does it without competitive bidding.

Now that city officials are discussing where the garbage should go — that is, what landfill should hold it — there's a perfect opportunity to open up the 1932 deal, amend the charter, and fix this.

Sups. David Campos and Ross Mirkarimi are working on a measure that would mandate competitive bidding for the contract to pick up commercial and residential trash. "It's not in the interest of the ratepayers to have a monopoly," Campos told us.

It's true that Recology has worked with the city on reducing the waste stream and developing a curbside compost and recycling plan. And Recology is an employee-owned company.

But that doesn't mean the city or its residents and businesses are getting the best possible deal. Could another company do the same job better — and for less? Maybe. Would the prospect of a competitive bid drive Recology to improve service and cut rates? Absolutely. That why most municipal contracts are put out to bid on a regular basis.

But there's a larger question here, one that the supervisors also should consider. Why does San Francisco have private garbage collection anyway? All over the country, cities handle that task as a part of the function of government.

There are several distinct advantages to evaluating a public option for refuse. For starters, the city is in desperate need of money — and Recology is making a nice profit off its local gig. It's entirely possible, even likely, that the city could take over garbage collection, keep the rates at the same level, and bring in millions to the general fund. It's also possible that city officials would decide to forego some of that income and cut rates to make life easier for residents and businesses.

Since the 1932 charter provision is getting a new look anyway, the supervisors at least ought to look at the possibility of ending private garbage collection. A fairly basic study should be able to establish how much revenue Recology takes in, what expenses are involved, and whether it's worth pursuing municipalization.



" It's also possible that city officials would decide to forego some of that income and cut rates to make life easier for residents and businesses."

Fewer drugs, you're hallucinating.

Posted by John on Feb. 15, 2011 @ 6:55 pm

SFBg drones on about public power. They never say that if power went non-profit that rates could go down - which might actually be a vote-winner.

Oh no, they want to keep all that filthy lucre to spend on progressive pork.

Then they wonder why the voters keep saying NO to public power.

Putting the contracts out to tender is fine. Running it as another incompetant city department - NO WAY.

Posted by Rick on Feb. 16, 2011 @ 6:29 pm

Let's hand this over to them too!

This editorial is proof that a private company can do every single thing right, including being employee-owned, and The Guardian will STILL call for the government to take over their responsibilities.

Posted by Lucretia Snapples on Feb. 15, 2011 @ 9:17 pm

Interesting thought about the City taking over garbage collection. The only difficult thing is that the City would not be allowed (by State Constitution, I believe) to charge customers more than the actual cost of collection. That means that revenue would just about equal expenses and there would be absolutely NO way to bring "millions into the general fund". There are only a couple of cities left in the state that do not franchise out their garbage collection & processing. So, unless you think that the city could be more efficient than a private company, and that the taxpayers would really like the opportunity to fund more pensions and lifetime benefits for additional city employees, it seems better to leave this to the private companies, but at least make it competitive.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 16, 2011 @ 12:16 pm

This is a very thoughtful editorial and I agreed with just about everything in it except for its advocacy for municipalization. Even though the government may need additional revenue streams, the last thing we need is bigger government. The most efficient way of collecting garbage is through privatization and a competitive bidding process. Because nothing drives efficiency and innovation like the marketplace, this is the best way to ensure that ratepayers are getting the best deal possible.

Posted by Just Me on Feb. 16, 2011 @ 1:21 pm

Privatized trash hauling means said business needs to turn a profit and show higher revenues every quarter.

Which means cost and corner cutting.

And by the way, it isn't even "privatized", it's outsourced, as tax revenues collected by the city will go to private enterprise. Same enterprise needs profit margin hence crappier and rarer service (and no one to answer to after contracts have been signed). Unless you think every home and apartment and business owner should negotiate themselves with competing interests, in which case you have chaos.

Anytime a vital service is outsourced or even privatized, they cost more (see health care, America). No exceptions.

Posted by guest on Feb. 16, 2011 @ 1:42 pm

I wonder if anyone has done a comparison of garbage and recycling rates in the state. I believe that Recology is operating a political pressure, illegal, garbage monopoly.

In the north coast rates have really gone up, their service is gotten nasty (nasty on the phone, don't want to pick up garbage unless you make them) and they have gotten in pretty with the politicians up here.

I think this company is a good candidate for racketeering investigation.

Posted by Guest Dave In Eureka Ca on Mar. 01, 2011 @ 8:14 am

North Coast where ? Be specific !

Posted by Guest Robert in Petaluma on Mar. 07, 2011 @ 12:47 pm

Don't throw the baby out with the bath water.....

Recology runs an efficient operation that could be fine tuned, but does not need to be taken over by SF City Hall.....

We DO need to regulate commercial garbage rates, and to authorize competitive bidding on it, customer by customer, as each one is unique... Right now, the commercial customers are really screwed by lack of choice, and the lack of rate supervision. That is the worst of all worlds.!

The Guardian could do worse than to convene its own "Guardian Town Hall Meetings", on important issues like these.


For a much more screwed up industry... take a look at the local cab industry, where
The City sets a frozen # of Cab permits (aka: Medallions) that kills competition and efficiency.

That mess is an example of "local government regulations." London, England, does the opposite: They mandate that there be NO limit on the # of cabs. Pass the very tough Knowledge of London test, boom!. You have your permit.. They love their cab system in London.....

Jack Barry in the Sunset.


Posted by jackbarry99 on Mar. 10, 2011 @ 9:46 am