Sonoma County garbage company tightens recycling rules

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HERE'S WHAT YOU CAN/CAN'T RECYCLE

See a full list of what you can and cannot recycle here.

YES

- Metal cans

- Glass bottles and jars

- Plastic bottles

- Newspaper, magazines, office paper and phone books

- Plastic containers and rigid plastic items

- Milk cartons and juice boxes

- Flattened cardboard and paper bags

NO

- Household waste

- Plastic bags, wrapping films or utensils

- Shredded paper

- Ceramics

- Styrofoam and packing peanuts

Here’s a quick recycling quiz:

Which of the following items are appropriate to put in local blue recycling bins?

A. Pizza boxes

B. Clean shredded paper

C. Consolidated plastic bags

D. Coffee cup tops bearing a triangular recyclable symbol

The correct answer is: None of above.

Sonoma County’s dominant waste hauler is struggling to clean up its single-stream recycling program, and it’s tightening the rules on what is — and what is not — recyclable material.

For years North Bay Corp. has been hesitant to enforce recycling guidelines, urging residents to err on the side of recycling, said Lou Ratto, chief operating officer for the Ratto Group of Companies, parent company of the Santa Rosa garbage hauler.

But the company, under close scrutiny by local regulators and facing a tighter overseas market for recycled goods, says those days are over.

“Five years ago, we told people if you don’t know whether it’s recyclable, put it in the recycling bin,” Ratto said. “Now, if you don’t know whether it’s recyclable, put it in the garbage.”

The company is under strict orders to get the amount of garbage in its recycling stream — known as residuals — below 10 percent, the maximum it is allowed to have under state law at its Santa Rosa recycling facilities on Standish Avenue.

The county Public Health Division issued a cease and desist order against North Bay Corp. two months ago. While the company has taken steps to fix the problem, it remains in violation of that order, does not have an action plan approved by the county and continues to face steep fines. In an effort to improve the quality of the material in its recycling stream, the company plans to limit the kinds of materials that are allowed in blue bins, improve its outreach and education to businesses and residents, and beef up its enforcement of the recycling rules.

“It’s tough love,” Steve McCaffrey, director of government affairs for Redwood Empire Disposal, the recycling arm of the Ratto Group, told the Santa Rosa City Council last week.

One part of the effort is to tighten the recycling rules. It wasn’t that long ago that the items on the above list were acceptable because there was a market for them, Ratto said.

But ever since China raised the standards for the material it will accept, the market for lower-quality material has either disappeared or the price has fallen so low it’s not economically viable, Ratto said.

Also, separating such materials from the single-stream recycling system is a challenge. The typical plastic coffee cup lid is a perfect example, he said. In theory, such lids are recyclable. But the reality is when they’re discarded into single-stream environments, there’s no way to separate, collect and resell them. The result is they head to the landfill.

“If I had 50,000 of them, it would be a different story,” Ratto said.

In many cases, manufacturers may stamp their products as recyclable, when in practical reality they are not, McCaffrey said, labeling the practice “green washing.”

Plastic bags, gathered together, are another material that the company until recently accepted but not longer can because there is no market, Ratto said.

HERE'S WHAT YOU CAN/CAN'T RECYCLE

See a full list of what you can and cannot recycle here.

YES

- Metal cans

- Glass bottles and jars

- Plastic bottles

- Newspaper, magazines, office paper and phone books

- Plastic containers and rigid plastic items

- Milk cartons and juice boxes

- Flattened cardboard and paper bags

NO

- Household waste

- Plastic bags, wrapping films or utensils

- Shredded paper

- Ceramics

- Styrofoam and packing peanuts

“That’s disappointing to me,” said Evelyn Reynolds. The 55-year-old Santa Rosa resident and clerical worker said she was surprised and confused by the company’s latest ad blitz informing customers that the bags are no longer accepted. Reynolds said she has gotten in the habit of recycling the bags and feels it helps the environment.

“I see them lying around and caught on fences everywhere and I want to do something,” Reynolds said. “I’m not a super-environmentalist, but I try to do my part.”

The education campaign that is already underway is going to be expanded from newspaper ads to radio, direct mail and stickers that can be put right on cans to remind people, Ratto said.

Santa Rosa City Councilwoman Julie Combs demonstrated just how important education will be to fix the problem at last week’s council meeting. She held up a recycling bin behind the dais and examined its contents, finding a sheet of office paper, which is recyclable, a soda can, which also is, and a potato chip bag, which is not.

“It’s a very clear demonstration that someone who pays attention to this kind of stuff does not know what should or should not go into those cans,” Vice Mayor Chris Coursey said.

North Bay Corp. has language in its contract with the city requiring education of residents, but the effort wasn’t robust, said Assistant City Manager Gloria Hurtado, adding that the company “met the minimum standard.”

Hurtado, who recently moved to Santa Rosa and has been living in an apartment complex for several months, said she can attest that people in multifamily housing aren’t getting the message.

“What a mess. There is no following any rules of any sort,” Hurtado said of her complex’s recycling efforts.

The company agrees that multifamily units are a big part of the problem, and says it’s reaching out to apartment managers in an effort to get better cooperation.

Ultimately, however, the company says it will have to stop picking up bins that are contaminated, either with plain household garbage or with items that seem recyclable but just aren’t.

The company is trying to identify routes that are the most problematic by analyzing what’s in the loads from certain routes. Some of those dirty loads — along with recycling from Petaluma, Novato and west Marin — are being sent to facilities in other counties to help the company keep garbage levels below 10 percent by weight at its Standish Avenue recycling facilities. The company said it will seek a solid waste facility permit for those recycling operations, which will allow it to handle a higher percentage of garbage in the recycling stream but also will come with more strict oversight by regulators.

It turns out that places like Roseland and Larkfield have high contamination rates, but so does Fountaingrove, said Eric Koenigshofer, the former county supervisor who represents the company. Oakmont, by contrast, has some of the best recyclers around, he said.

The company is trying to figure out how to best deal with such problem neighborhoods. It’s considering hiring people, perhaps youth from the Conservation Corps North Bay, to start looking in recycling bins and issuing warnings.

The homeowner would have a chance to clean it up, and the trucks would return the first time. After a second time, the bins would be “tagged” and wouldn’t be picked up.

“If they are a repeat offender, we will be leaving those carts behind,” McCaffrey told the council.

That plan, which had yet to be approved, got some pushback from Combs.

“I’m having a little trouble with the one can, you’re out. Even in baseball you get three,” she said.

Coursey expressed frustration when McCaffrey warned the city to brace for telephone calls from angry citizens when the company begins to enforce its stricter recycling guidelines. He told McCaffrey to focus first on educating customers before penalizing them.

“To come in here and tell us that we are going to have to deal with the consequences of people not getting their cans picked up is not the next step, as far as I’m concerned,” he said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @srcitybeat.

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