Recycling push puts Berkeley’s budget in dumps

February 18, 2010 at 11:59 AM Leave a comment

Tuesday, February 9, 2010 (SF Chronicle)
Matthai Kuruvila, Chronicle Staff Writer

Berkeley’s $144 million budget is in the trash can – literally.
In a $10 million deficit announced last week, the single biggest factor –
$4 million – was a decline in its refuse revenues.
The city says, in part, that it’s a victim of its own success. Residents
pride themselves on aggressively recycling and composting, so they’re
switching to smaller, cheaper trash cans – the only collection for which
the city charges.
“The whole business model for recycling and garbage has been to
incentivize recycling,” said Andrew Clough, the city’s deputy director of
public works. “We’re going to have to do a new business model.”
The recession is altering the economics of garbage around the country,
according to refuse companies in San Francisco and Alameda counties.
With people buying fewer toys and trinkets, there’s less packaging and
cardboard waste. If a business fails, there’s no trash to pick up. With
construction lagging, there’s less debris at the transfer station.
“Not only does the amount of garbage change with the economy, but the very
nature of garbage changes,” said Robert Reed, a spokesman for Recology
Sunset Scavenger, which handles garbage, recycling and compost for San
But the issue hits Berkeley particularly hard, because it’s one of only a
few cities that still does its own garbage and refuse pickup.
The construction industry collapse has played a big role in the reduction
in drop-offs at the local dump, decreasing Berkeley’s revenues by 15
percent even though it hiked the transfer station rates by 10 percent in
Struggling businesses account for another 15 percent decline.
And residents, switching to smaller bins, have caused an additional 8
percent revenue decline.
They are people like Lucy Mahaffey.
After years of paying for a 32-gallon can, Mahaffey’s family of four
switched to the smallest can, 13 gallons, two months ago. Because they put
food waste and many food containers into the compost bin, and sort out
recyclables, almost all that’s left over is plastic bags.
“I felt funny going to the smaller rate,” said Mahaffey, 47. “It’s the
same amount of stuff going out – and trucks and garbage people required to
take it away.”
In a year’s time, Berkeley’s residents and businesses have increased the
amount diverted from landfills from 61 percent to 66 percent, said Ken
Etherington, the city’s manager for solid waste and recycling. They still
trail behind San Francisco, which last May reported a 72 percent diversion
Because Berkeley provides its own service, it lacks funds to buy many
technologies required to recycle even more products, like certain plastics
or concrete.
The economics of recycling has always been subsidized by commodities’
resale values. But those also collapsed over the past year. Paper went
from being worth $187 a ton in July 2008 to $46 a ton in January 2009 and
$116 a ton in December 2009. Aluminum went from $1,908 a ton to $679 to
$1,200, Clough said.
What to do next hasn’t yet been decided, but it will be the subject of a
special City Council meeting at 5 p.m. today. Included among the
short-term plans to bridge the budget gap are an extension of a hiring
freeze, giving employees voluntary time off without pay and deferring
capital projects.
Residents were socked with a 20 percent rate hike in August, so Clough
said his department would be looking at cutting costs and improving
efficiencies first.
“So much waste isn’t going to the landfill,” Clough said. “But there’s
still a significant cost to move that material from the resident.”

The original article can be found here on


Entry filed under: Green News, recycling, San Francisco local, SF Green, Sustainable Living. Tags: , , , .

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