Trash contract changes hands


Recology, an employee-owned waste management company that dates back to the 1920s in San Francisco and has pioneered the curbside collection of compostable material, will take over service in West Marin later this month. 

In a unanimous vote on Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors approved the transfer of the county’s contract with Redwood Empire Disposal, an affiliate of the Ratto Group that has serviced the area since 2008.

The Bolinas Community Public Utility District and Stinson Beach County Water District held separate contracts with Redwood, and also recently approved the new assignment to Recology.

“It’s unusual to say that we are excited about a new solid waste company,” District Four Supervisor Dennis Rodoni told the room on Tuesday. “We think Recology will fit into West Marin very well. Welcome.”

In August, the Ratto Group, which together with its multiple affiliates provides services throughout most of Sonoma County, the City of Novato and the communities of West Marin, entered an agreement to sell most of its assets to Recology. 

The sale represents a roughly 13 percent expansion for Recology, leaving  it with an estimated more than $1 billion in annual revenue.

The sale also marks the end of a troubled era for Redwood Empire Disposal, whose sister company faces steep fines from the City of Santa Rosa and the Sonoma County Department of Health Services over issues such as not meeting minimum requirements for diverting recyclables from landfill disposal, operating an unpermitted solid waste facility, failing to maintain its fleet of trucks and inadequate management. 

While most of those issues did not directly affect West Marin customers, some residents expressed frustration over a practice of mixing garbage with recyclables in some trucks (items the company said were sorted later).

In an interesting twist of fate, the founder of the Ratto Group, James Ratto, an Italian immigrant, began his career collecting garbage cans in San Francisco for the company Sunset Scavengers, which later became Recology. 

Ratto spokesman Eric Koenigshofer said that Mr. Ratto is ready to get out of the garbage business and that neither of his sons, who help manage the company, want to be in the industry in the long term.

Steve Devine, Marin’s program manager for waste management, said the county was looking forward to having a new partner. “Recology has a lot of progressive programs in the communities that they already serve, and we’re excited to work with them,” he said. 

Mr. Devine added that the move to Recology will not eliminate the county’s waste challenges, however. “A lot of the challenges we have cannot just be solved by a change in the company that picks up the waste—it’s about people buying more responsibly, sorting waste better and things like that,” he said. 

The official transition will likely take place by the end of December. According to Celia Furber, who will manage the public outreach and “waste zero” educational program for the new Recology Sonoma Marin chapter, the first change residents can expect to see is an improvement in customer services, whose office will be based in Santa Rosa.

Down the road, Recology also plans to replace the fleet of trucks in favor of more fuel-efficient, lower-emission vehicles, and make a series of other improvements to equipment and facilities. Earlier this year, in preparation for the transition, Redwood’s workers also joined a union, a standard upheld by Recology. (Ms. Furber said Recology is trying to retain as many of Ratto Group’s 430 employees as possible.)

To determine Recology’s qualifications as a provider, Marin looked to a comprehensive evaluation by a consulting company commissioned by the City of Petaluma. The report concluded that the company would be able to provide services under the franchise agreement for West Marin—and that the county “should anticipate that Recology will request rate increases in the near future.” 

According to the report, Recology intends to present rate-increase requests as soon as six months after the purchase is completed, both because of its higher cost of operations and labor and to meet certain terms of its county contract that “are not currently being met.”

Ms. Furber said that in Santa Rosa, rates will increase on Jan. 1 to reflect immediate changes, including all-new service trucks, unionized workers, new Dumpsters, fresh signage and more. But in Marin, Recology would not likely begin reviewing rates until 2019.

Recology boasts a strong outreach program, which includes bringing presentations to local schools. Robert Reed, a spokesman for the company, said Recology has found that working with students in particular has a ripple effect. 

“We talk to students and then they go home and tell their parents that they’re composting in school and wonder why they aren’t doing it at home,” he said. “It’s a very effective way, we’ve found, to reach adults and to have them make significant changes in the way they manage waste.”

Mr. Reed said that the small changes the company promotes at schools and workplaces—such as standardizing the colors of bins, labeling them with stickers depicting what should go where, and using clear garbage bags so that custodial staff can see through to the contents—can make a huge difference toward diverting a greater amount of waste from landfills.

Illustrating the company’s experimental approach to observing the habits of its customers, Mr. Reed described how a recent shift to smaller garbage cans and larger recycling and composting bins in San Francisco led to a 12 percent reduction in waste destined for landfills.

In its report to the supervisors, Marin County staff wrote that the transition to Recology “provides a special opportunity” to welcome a new solid waste service provider to West Marin that can help better meet the county’s goal of zero waste by 2025. 

The report cites collaboration with Zero Waste Marin, also known as the Marin Hazardous and Solid Waste Joint Powers Authority, which provides information on household hazardous waste collection, recycling, composting and waste disposal and ensures the county’s compliance with state recycling mandates.

In California, the Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989 mandated goals of 25 percent landfill diversion for each city and county by 1995 and 50 percent diversion by 2000. Going above and beyond, Marin achieved a 77 percent diversion rate in 2004 and set a goal of 80 percent diversion by 2012 and zero waste by 2025.

Yet in the area that Recology services in San Francisco, diversion is above 80 percent. Ms. Furber, who will lead a nine-person team for Recology Sonoma Marin that will focus on public education, outreach and diversion goals, said Marin had “a lot of potential” for greater diversion.