New year, new garbage services for Santa Rosa

Santa Rosa's new garbage hauler is rolling out plenty of changes for customers this New Year's, including new plastic bins, new trucks and new rates to pay for it all.

Recology, the San Francisco-based garbage company, completed its purchase of The Ratto Group Dec. 23, making it the dominant waste hauler on the North Coast.

Most Sonoma County residents and businesses will see few changes from the sale because Recology has merely taken over Ratto's existing service contracts.

But beginning Jan. 1, the company began operating in Santa Rosa under a new 15-year contract that calls for sweeping new changes to the refuse service to 55,000 residential and commercial accounts.

The city hopes Recology will provide not only better service and accountability than its predecessor, but will help it achieve its environmental goals of increasing recycling and reducing the amount of garbage heading to the landfill.

“They really buy into the zero waste philosophy,” said Gloria Hurtado, deputy city manager. “They certainly have a track record of achieving good results in other communities.”

Here's a look at some of the changes in store for local garbage service under Recology.

New bins

The biggest change for most Santa Rosa residents will be that they will soon be receiving three new curbside bins, also called carts. The gray, blue and green rolling bins for garbage, recycling and green waste, respectively, start hitting the streets Jan. 15, but it'll take awhile for everyone to receive them.

That's because it's a huge job, involving an estimated 150,000 new containers that need to be assembled and delivered to virtually every address in the city. At the moment, about 40,000 of the carts are in storage beneath the grandstands at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

New bins are important for several reasons, said Fred Stemmler, the new general manager of Recology's Sonoma and Marin operations.

Consistent bin colors are important because they reinforce what goes where. The supply of bins on the street today is a hodgepodge of various colors acquired by Ratto over the years, which can cause confusion for customers, he said. Some yard waste bins are green, others black, and there are even some purple ones inexplicably floating around out there, Stemmler said.

The new bins will also contain fresh infographics giving people clear information about what goes in the bins, which should help reduce confusion and contamination of recyclable material with food waste, Stemmler said.

New kitchen waste pails will also be delivered to reinforce that people should now throw most table scraps into the green waste bin (which is why it's not longer called a yard waste bin).

For those who've grown attached to their old bins or think it's wasteful to buy new ones, take heart. The old ones will cleaned up and repurposed in other communities wherever possible. And if they can't be, they'll be recycled themselves, Stemmler said.

New trucks

By far the biggest expense facing Recology is the purchase of 55 new trucks and street sweepers. The side-loading trucks, the workhorse of the fleet, cost about $330,000 each, meaning the company is investing about $18 million in rolling stock. The vehicles, built by Indiana-based Autocar, are on order and expected to begin rolling out in April or May, Stemmler said.

The trucks will run on biodiesel and have better efficiency and emissions controls than what's on the road today, he said. They'll also be safer.

Onboard cameras will allow drivers to see what kind of material pours out of the bins and into the trucks, making it easier to track down, and, if necessary, penalize customers putting stuff in the wrong bins.

Recology did not explore utilizing other types of vehicles, such as compressed natural gas or electric, he said.

The Ratto Group for years touted its work with Wrightspeed, an Alameda company designing an electric garbage truck. But despite promises to deliver “a fleet of clean, quiet trucks” to Sonoma County, the effort has run into technical difficulties, and to date not a single electric truck has seen service here.

New rates

To pay for all this new stuff, rates are rising sharply.

A typical residential customer in Santa Rosa with a 32-gallon garbage container, the most popular size, was paying $16.97 per month for garbage, recycling and yard waste pickup with Ratto. That's now going up to $27.05 per month, a 59 percent increase.

The 20-gallon, 64-gallon and 96-gallon containers are all slated to go up by similar amounts.

Commercial cart rates are rising even more sharply, going from $33.05 for a 64-gallon container to $83.29, a 152 percent increase. The 96-gallon size is soaring from $38.81 to $125.07, a 223 percent increase.

Hurtado stressed that the average increase is $10 per month. She said Ratto's rates had been significantly below market.

She also noted the City Council instituted a program to reduce rates by 15 percent for low-income residents.

Stemmler said customers have the opportunity to moderate the increases by reducing the size of the garbage bins they use.

For example, a customer who drops down from the 64-gallon size to a standard 32-gallon size can save $14.06 per month.

New bills

Customers won't all be hit with the higher rates at once. Because of the way the company staggers its billing, new rates will be introduced gradually as the company transitions from Ratto to Recology, Stemmler said.

But this is already causing some confusion. The first wave of new bills went out this week and people are already getting mixed up.

The company bills quarterly, or three months at a time. The new bills going out now are for December, January and February, so they'll be for one month of the old rates and two months of the new Recology rates, Stemmler said.

“It's confusing, but it's not a mistake,” he said.

New general manager

Stemmler, the new general manager of the operation, is passionate about recycling and energetic about getting the local operation running more efficiently.

A married father of two who drives a hybrid car, the Laguna Beach native has worked for Recology for 10 years, most recently as general manager in McMinnville, Oregon, where he oversaw service to about 18 communities in the northwest part of the state.

A CPA by training, Stemmler said he switched to the waste industry because he wanted to be a part of a service that made a tangible different in people's lives.

“I get such satisfaction in being part of team,” Stemmler said. “It's a critical infrastructure service. If we don't do our job well, we hear about it immediately.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 707-521-5207 or On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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