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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