With the new year's kick-off of Recology's slick, new, single-stream recycling system, city officials hope that only a very small percentage of household waste will wind up in the small black cans that have been given to homeowners in the two cities. Instead of garbage, Recology is asking residents to stuff more and more of their waste into the compost (green) and recycling (blue) bins than ever before.
The new system will be much better for the environment, but it will cost more, in most cases a lot more, unless homeowners reduce the expense by taking a smaller garbage can. If so, they will have done exactly what environmental experts had hoped, which is reducing the amount of waste that enters shrinking landfills on the Peninsula.
But at the moment, the increased cost is taking center stage. In Menlo Park, for example, on July 1 of last year residents paid $5 more per month for each garbage can, and the City Council decided later in the year that rates could increase again by up to 15 percent this July, although the exact amount has not been determined. Similar bumps for Atherton has some residents livid about how quickly rates have skyrocketed in the last two years.
What happened? There is no short answer, but the rates must cover a new, $65 million facility to house the single-stream sorting process, and an extremely lucrative labor contract for the garbage collectors, who will receive a 19 percent pay increase over the next five years. The deal was approved by the outgoing Republic Services (formerly Allied Waste) before its contract ended last year. Critics say Republic had no incentive to drive a hard bargain with the union representing the garbage workers, and that in any case, there is no way for the 10 cities in the waste management district to hold the line on labor costs, which are passed through to the cities and on to local residents.
Other factors said to contribute to the jump in rates include higher costs for fuel and other supplies that go into operating a large garbage and recycling collection system. In addition, the Atherton and Menlo Park city councils, which must adjust the collection rates to cover billings from the waste collection companies, did not always raise rates high enough to adequately cover costs, so in some cases are billing residents to cover a prior shortfall.
If you are an angry ratepayer, the best way to save is to recycle more and throw away less. That way you can contract for a smaller garbage can, which will cost less per month. It may be difficult for owners of larger lots with more vegetation to control their compost production, although the green carts will be picked up every week now, instead of every other week.
The bottom line: The higher rates are beginning to reflect the true cost of our impact on the environment. It is time to recognize that there is a monetary cost for environmental impact, and it is starting to catch up with us.
The next shock will be a major hike in water rates, which are expected to double by 2015 when the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission completes its major project to overhaul the pipes that bring water to the Bay Area from the Hetch Hetchy water system. This is a major renovation that is expected to cost more than $6 billion. Conservation is the only way to reduce the impact of this rate increase.