Recycling Update: Strategies for Closing Berkeley’s Budget Gap

This past spring, the Ecology Center’s Curbside Recycling Program found itself in peril: the City of Berkeley’s Solid Waste Division was facing a budget shortfall, and a consultant hired by Public Works staff recommended termination of the Ecology Center’s recycling contract, among other strategies to cut costs. The consultant’s report threw the Ecology Center into crisis mode. We assertively pointed out the report’s flaws, and called on supporters to fight for the continuation of our program. As a result, our long-term contract with the City of Berkeley was safeguarded, but not without serious sacrifices on our part. Months of negotiation have followed, and mutually agreed-upon amendments to our contract have been crafted. This recycling update provides details about the changes we’ll be making, as well as a snapshot of the larger context.

It’s Not Just Us
If you’ve been following the news, you know that city and state governments across the country are cash-strapped. Berkeley is no exception. The budget deficit is affecting all City agencies, not just the Solid Waste Division. The sacrifices called for are spread throughout the Solid Waste Division, including all the community partners that play a role in handling our city’s discards. The City asked all parties to find ways to be more efficient in order to address the budget gap. In order to meet the cost-savings goal, the Ecology Center proposed two strategies: eliminating a senior finance position and piloting single-driver recycling routes.

Our Cost-Cutting Strategies
The senior finance position that we have now eliminated was an open position for which we were hiring when the budget woes hit this spring. Our existing administrative staff will continue to absorb those duties. The second strategy is more impactful: changing our recycling routes to be staffed by a single driver rather than a team of two staffers per truck.

At present, nearly all of the trucks that pick up garbage, recycling, and green waste in Berkeley are staffed by two people. Current industry wisdom is that single-driver routes are more efficient. We agree that savings can be captured by transitioning to single-driver routes, but we are still unsure what the true cost savings will actually be. On average, one driver on a recycling truck can do ¾ of a two-person route in the same amount of time. That’s the efficiency we’re hoping to capture. But a lot of the industry metrics are based on suburban models, where cars are parked neatly in street-facing garages and few cars line the street. These models don’t reflect the diverse geography of Berkeley, where the route drivers must negotiate parked cars, streets without sidewalks, and other situation that slow the pick-up process.

To begin the process of transitioning to single-driver routes, the Ecology Center has contracted with Intelliwaste, an operational consultant, to conduct a route study. They are tasked with preparing a cost-benefit analysis, studying on-route efficiencies, evaluating safety concerns, and determining how many trucks and drivers we’ll need to make the switch. The consultants are performing time and motion studies, following our drivers with a stopwatch to see how long it takes them to pull up, grab a cart, tip the cart, and move to the next stop. The preliminary feedback that we are receiving from Intelliwaste includes the assessment that Berkeley’s diverse geography means that stop times vary greatly, and that the Ecology Center provides an exceptional level of recycling service relative to other cities. To wit, there are many instances where residents don’t set out their carts, or set them out far away from the curb, and our drivers do what it takes to service those carts. In many other communities, if the cart is not at the curb, it doesn’t get tipped. This aspect of our customer service has very real time and efficiency impacts.

The Transition to Carts
Last fall, our recycling program transitioned from using the dark blue bins to the light blue rolling carts. Operationally, this was a big change, one to which we are still adapting. The good news is that rolling carts have succeeded at propelling us toward our Zero Waste goals: the tonnage of collected recyclables is up 20%! It has also dramatically reduced poaching by slowing the poachers down. Before the switch, poachers would target Berkeley because the recyclables were so easy to access in the blue bins. Now, our collection methods are the same as surrounding communities, which also use rolling carts.

The carts take longer to tip than the bins took to load, which means that our drivers are taking longer to complete their routes. The trucks have to roll down both sides of the street because the cart tipper is only on one side, whereas before, the bins could be loaded on both sides. For our drivers, the working day is longer, but there is less wear and tear on their bodies. It is also safer, since they do not have to cross streets on foot to collect recyclables on the opposite side. Once we receive the Intelliwaste recommendations and have acquired the additional trucks necessary to run single-driver routes, we hope to strike a good balance in terms of efficiency and shifts.

Berkeley’s Zero Waste Progress
Berkeley is a city of great ambitions and outstanding environmental progress. We have made a commitment to becoming a Zero Waste community, and we well are on our way. In May of 2005, the Berkeley City Council unanimously adopted the goal of becoming a Zero Waste City. The resolution reaffirmed the City’s commitment to the Alameda County-wide goal of achieving a 75% waste diversion rate by 2010, and established a Zero Waste Goal for 2020. In 2006, Berkeley voters overwhelmingly endorsed ballot Measure G, a mandate to reduce Berkeley’s greenhouse gas emissions to 80% below 2000 levels by 2050.

Guided by these resolutions and mandates, and in spite of the lack of a formal plan, City staff, SEIU waste workers, and recycling partners like the Ecology Center, CCC, and Urban Ore have advanced Berkeley’s state calculated diversion rate from 62% in 2007 to 68% in 2008 to 72% in 2009. We very well may have reached the 75% goal for 2010, but the numbers are not out yet. This is outstanding progress.

Berkeley’s unique status, as a city that owns and operates its own resource recovery facility has allowed our community to recover far more materials from our refuse than other neighboring communities. While it is true that the massive transfer station complex in San Leandro can process in a day what the Berkeley facility processes in a month, Berkeley does a better job at resource recovery. Berkeley sends only 42% of what comes into our facility to the landfill, while the Waste Management Inc. owned San Leandro facility sends more than 62% of what they receive to the landfill. According to their own internal calculations, Waste Management buries $70 million annually worth of valuable resources from that facility alone.

Our facility also offers great convenience and additional services that make it easy for Berkeley residents to reduce their waste. Berkeleyans have fought for recycling in the past, defeating toxic incinerators and privatization schemes at the ballot. It is a tremendous community asset, and it continues to merit our support and attention.

In the last several years, three large-scale projects have had a major impact in Berkeley’s advance toward Zero Waste: the introduction of our new recycling carts, the collection of household compost, and the diversion of construction and demolition debris (plaster, concrete, wood, etc.). These substantial advances have happened against a backdrop of antiquated systems, aging equipment, new regulatory requirements, and a flawed rate structure that is limiting revenue while services expand. The budget shortfall in Berkeley’s Solid Waste Division is relatively small (10%) now, but projected to grow unless some dramatic changes are made.

Residents Can Add to Efficiency
Residents can be part of the solution, by improving operational efficiency and minimizing waste. For instance, only rolling your recycling bins to the curb when they are full reduces the inefficient tipping of nearly empty carts. You can actively work to reduce your household discards by buying in bulk, choosing products that have minimal packaging, avoiding bottled water, reading news online rather than in print, reusing your bags, and taking advantage of Berkeley’s new Catalog Choice junk mail reduction service. To reduce plant-based discards, plant low maintenance landscaping, don’t over-fertilize your yard, and if you’re up for the challenge, compost your own kitchen scraps and yard debris. All of these actions reduce the need for collection and processing, and bring more efficiency into the systems as a whole.

Unsustainable Rate Structure
Reasonably, the City pursued improved efficiency on the expense side before turning their focus to the income side and addressing the problematic garbage rate structure. The short-term budget gap will be solved through the cost-cutting actions that the City and the Ecology Center are taking. But in the long term, the whole solid waste division will continue to be plagued with budget gaps as long as the rate structure remains as it is.

With the current rate structure, homeowners’ solid waste fee is based only on the size of their garbage can. This means that some residents are only paying eleven dollars per month for garbage while taking full advantage of the recycling and compost programs for free. Eleven dollars barely covers the monthly cost of one of these services, much less all three. Yet, with the economic downturn and increase in compost and recycling services, people are using smaller and smaller garbage cans. This is fantastic, but there are two fundamental problems with this development: 1) it treats the collection of compost and recyclables as free services, when they actually cost a lot to provide, and 2) as we approach Zero Waste as a City, our revenue for all curbside collection services will continue to dwindle along with the garbage, and the budget gap will continue to grow. This is not a sustainable situation.

Ideally, a sustainable residential refuse rate structure will include a basic Zero Waste Service fee that covers collection of all three streams (garbage, compost, recycling) regardless of container size, as the cost of collection is much more about having a truck and a driver come past your house than the size of your carts. In addition, there should be a strong incentive for residents to continue to move toward Zero Waste. We must change our orientation towards a comprehensive Zero Waste Service fee and away from a simple garbage fee.

Berkeley can continue to be a Zero Waste leader, but it will take tough decisions, a team approach, and a revenue structure that makes sense. We are hopeful that the outcome of this current budget crisis will be a redoubling of our community’s commitment to Zero Waste, climate action goals, and a smart, efficient resource recovery system and rate structure that strengthens Berkeley’s leadership for years to come.

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14 thoughts on “Recycling Update: Strategies for Closing Berkeley’s Budget Gap

  1. Why not charge for the compost that the City now gives away for free? That makes more sense to me than charging residents for composting and recycling, which disincentivises residents from reducing their waste.

    • Although it is ultimately not up to us, the Ecology Center hopes that in the future, the waste collection rate structure still includes incentives that compel people to compost and recycle. However, making the collection of green waste and recycling free sends a really false signal to residents. The collection of those things costs the City a lot of money. The cost of distributing free compost to residents is tiny compared to the cost of collecting green waste and recyclables year-round.

  2. 1. Composting food scraps attracts rats. I put all food scraps in the green
    bin, and only compost leaves.

    2. Even half-full bins can begin to smell bad in warm weather, so I’m afraid
    I’ll have to keep on putting them at the curb.

    3. Is “impactful” really a word?

    • Rima,
      Indeed, many people have rodent issues when composting in the city. People who use worm bins to compost their kitchen scraps don’t have that problem.

      I rinse out my recyclables, so they don’t smell bad in warm weather. My green bin, on the other hand, gets to smelling pretty awful.

      You’re right! Impactful is not found in dictionaries (yet). Will try to use better words in the future!

    • it is very frustrating as a driver to pull up to a cart, get out, walk over and see that it has practically nothing in it. This wastes more time than you think when you add the hundreds together that happens every day. It also wastes a lot of diesel which adds to the greenhouse gas effects. Also, we provide a CURBSIDE service. Not an”up by the house, or up by the garage” service. Please try your best to put them as close to the street as possible. Thanks, Ryan

  3. I’ve lived in and around Berkeley since the 1970’s and have seen the progress and the issues in recycling. Early on household recycling was just once a month pick up of newspapers. The Ecology Center and others worked for years to broaden the types of materials picked up, to make pick up weekly, to sort materials and to have households put out recycling weekly.

    Now the Ecology Center is asking households to NOT put out the bins weekly. Only when full. The Ecology Center is asking for a major change in household behavior that it itself pushed to create. It will take a very long time and some investment to explain and reconstruct these habits.

    This also brings up the question of why we need weekly recycling pickup in the first place if we have these big bins that most people won’t fill every week. Wouldn’t it make more sense to go back to a bi-weekly schedule?

    • TN,
      It doesn’t make sense to go back to a bi-weekly schedule…yet. Most people still fill their carts every week. The tonnage of recycling that we are gathering every week is much more than a bi-weekly pickup schedule could accommodate. The tip to only roll out your recycling carts when they are full is aimed at the minority of residents who are generating a smaller amount of recyclable discards.

      You’re very right about how hard it is to affect changes in household behavior! It’s also very difficult to come up with “one size fits all” solutions. There are some households that are only now starting to recycle and need encouragement. There are other households that fill their carts to the brim every week. There are other households who generate hardly any discards of any kind, recyclables included. The tips we include in the article are meant to be a list of ideas for you to consider, based on what makes sense for your particular household’s practices.

      We hope that a bi-weekly schedule is possible in the future, as the City moves toward Zero Waste. We’re just not there yet.

      • As a driver i agree one hundred percent! We only want the people who roll there carts out with
        one newspaper or one can in it to wait until it is at least half full. Most people have more
        than our carts can accommodate.

        • Ryan,

          I’m glad to hear an actual driver respond! You actually see what’s going on.

          So, is it true that most people put fill their carts every week? Or is it just that when there are recycling carts out, they are full? We know that some people put nearly empty carts out. (This might be because the poachers have got there first. It is true for our household for ALL bottles and cans. And even bundled newspapers get poached from in front of our house.) This hasn’t changed for us since the blue carts were delivered. The only thing that the truck actually picks up from our household is mixed paper.

          The two portion blue carts have more capacity than 2 of the old blue bins. They look to have the capacity of 4 of the old plastic bins. I can’t see how most households are filling the cart every week.

          I’d like see the Ecology Center seriously study this.

          • TN,
            Just so you know we have had a consultant firm follow us around on our actual
            routes to study what is going on. Their findings should be made public in the
            near future. To answer your question about the poaching, it is very frustrating
            to see the same people stealing materials every week on the same streets. The
            issue with your question about the carts is simple. They are, in certain
            neighborhoods filled to capacity every week on both sides of the cart. Other
            neighborhoods where poaching is more prevalent, not so much, but always the
            paper side is full plus some on the side. I wish everyone would use our split
            carts. They are better for the environment!!

  4. Here’s a suggestion for addressing the funding structure concerns while supporting high recycling rates and low overall waste production: Charge a basic service fee to all users. Also record collections per user, and charge users by the number of times that trash, recycling, and greenwaste are collected from each user over the course of the billing period. Charge more for trash than recycling and greenwaste, if desired, to discourage generation of landfill material. But the major advantage of this approach is that customers are charged based on the load that they impose both on the collection system (number of truck stops) and the disposal system (assuming that bins are full when they are collected). Some people will be less careful and put bins out every week regardless of how full they are, and will be charged accordingly.

    • Yikes! Next our containers will be getting “smart meters” that weigh and report the waste, recycling, and compost that we put out for pick up.

  5. Suggestion for those who compost food in tight lidded bins (no rodents).

    ON the so-called “bad smell” take a deep breath and put some DRIED LEAVES onto the food scraps, they cut
    the smell, plus add carbon (composting carbon, nitrogen), and then take this temporary bin to a larger
    composting unite in the garden/or in someone else’s garden who can use the compost for mulching, plant
    growth, soil amendments and just fooling around with the lively smell of compost.
    For rodent despisers, invite a neighbors cat to sit around and hunt. Then when they catch one they will
    bring it as a gift to your neighbor, not you.

  6. Thank you to all residents who have taken notice to this very important issue! As a driver this means a lot to see you are concerned!

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