The Zero Wasteland

San Francisco garbage firm Recology, preaching radical composting methods, poised to truck into the North Bay

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There’s an old joke that starts with a question. Guy asks a store owner, “Hey, how’s business?” Store owner pauses before delivering the punch line. “Well, as they say in the garbage-collection industry, ‘It stinks—but it’s picking up.'”

Get it? Recology gets it.

For the San Francisco–based Recology, the stinky business of garbology is really picking up. The pioneering trash company, a national and international pace-setter when it comes to landfill-diversion strategies (most notably through its composting initiatives), has just completed the purchase of the North Bay’s Ratto Group and is poised to start rolling the trucks and picking up the trash within the next few months, from Santa Rosa to the wilds of West Marin. The company’s been around for more than 100 years and started as a scrap-scavenging outfit in San Francisco, where, according to corporate materials, it still holds the exclusive contract to deal with that town’s epic waste stream.

The firm also recently signed off on a garbage-collection contract in Humboldt County, filling in a previously empty coastal zone on a company map that’s dotted with Recology outposts in Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California—but none in the North Bay. Until now.

The company has had its eye on the golden coastal swath that runs from San Francisco to Eureka, says Eric Potashner, the San Francisco–based vice president and senior director of strategic affairs at Recology as he notes that “these opportunities don’t come around that often.”

This particular opportunity arose in part out of Ratto subsidiary the North Bay Corporation’s failure to fulfill the terms of its contract in Santa Rosa—notably, the company’s dodgy track record on diverting recyclables out of landfills—and by extension, to all the other municipalities in Sonoma County who use the service. (The towns of Sonoma and Windsor are the only two municipalities in the county that don’t use the Ratto service; Windsor recently signed on with Sonoma County Resource Recovery after it ditched the Ratto affiliate that held the contract.)

And the process in Santa Rosa to replace Ratto with another firm has been a bit awkward, to say the least, as Recology was initially rejected in a request for bids sent out by Santa Rosa earlier this year, when it picked two other companies as finalists, even as Recology was negotiating to buy Ratto.

Santa Rosa—and the county as a whole—has cited multiple failures on Ratto’s part to fulfill the contract as their reason to not re-sign the locally based company, whose subsidiary trucks roll around the North Bay under the banner of Redwood Empire in Marin County. Those failures included a demonstrably poor track record of diverting recyclables from regional landfills.

In April, Santa Rosa was poised to pick between the nation’s number-one trash hauler, Waste Management, and local upstart GreenWaste Recovery, when Recology chimed in and told the city that they were in the final push to purchase the just-unionized Ratto, even as Santa Rosa was about to pick someone else to pick up the garbage.

The Santa Rosa City Council (SRCC) then nixed the two original finalists and allowed Recology to resubmit its bid, when it promptly became a finalist. As of Monday, Aug. 15, the Santa Rosa city manager’s office had recommended Recology to the SRCC, which will take up the recommendation and likely approve it at its Aug. 29 meeting, according to the city website and Joey Hejnowicz, the administrative analyst for the city manager’s office who is charged with the nitty-gritty of the Recology contract rollout.

Recology has made its bones in the trash business by preaching and practicing a philosophy of radical food-waste diversion, which it pioneered in San Francisco in the early aughts when it launched a composting program that would divert food and yard waste into composting facilities and then into the rows at local farms, providing top-notch soil for ground cover.

The company’s corporate
cri de coeur is “zero waste,” a laudable objective that’s been taken up by municipalities and counties around the state—but not by Sonoma County. Marin County has set its zero-waste goal for 2025.

Zero waste is a tough nut to crack given the practical limitations of current curbside, street-bin sorting systems. But industry leaders and garbologists have noted that the multiplier impacts in eliminating food and yard waste from the landfill stream goes far beyond any benefit that recycling provides.

The purchase (Potashner averred on offering the final sale price) included all of the Ratto assets, he says, including the machinery, trucks and real estate. The current garbage-collection matrix in Sonoma County has proven inadequate to the demands of residents and civic leadership to reduce landfill-bound waste and achieve a zero waste outcome. Even if the county hasn’t embraced the concept as a policy mandate, Sonoma County did host its first-ever zero-waste summit in May. It’s a start.

Compared with Ratto, the Recology business model appears better poised to deliver on recycling and composting, but will it? Potashner notes that the Ratto Group just upgraded its recycling facility in Santa Rosa. “That is in much better shape than it has been in 10 years,” he says, and notes that Recology plans “to add some capital improvements” to ensure that waste that winds up in those blue recycling bins stays out of the landfills.

The recycling and waste-transfer stations are where that particular rubber hits the zero-waste road, and a better recyclables yield, Potashner notes, comes through employing the latest technology, which for Recology includes optical-sorting scans and new screening tech. “That does move the needle forward insofar as what you can do on the recycling end.”

But landfills are typically filled with 30 to 40 percent organic matter that creates methane and all sorts of environmental havoc on the global-warming front. Composting food and yard waste is key to achieving the zero-waste goal.

“The other side is the composting,” says Potashner, “and we are going to expand those operations on the North Coast as well—we intend to provide an organic solution that frankly hasn’t been there.”

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Recology’s landfill-diversion rates are the best in the country, and as the company expands into Marin and Sonoma counties, the challenge will be to maintain its industry edge while getting the North Bay up to speed on its wildly successful curbside-composting program, launched in San Francisco.

But Potashner cautions against an immediately apparent golden age of composting in the North Bay. “One thing to talk about is expectations,” he says. “This is not about just flipping a switch.” Even as there’s upcoming technology upgrades to the region’s current landfill-diversion facilities, the key human pieces have to fall into place, too. “You need a partnership with public works agencies and the customer, and it takes a little while to build up.”

And of course it’s far cheaper in the short term to just dump it all in the landfill, he says, but the long-term costs are untenable. A common refrain in most regional stories about the changing landscape of the North Bay garbage scene is that whoever is picking up the trash moving forward, it’s likely going to get more expensive.

But Potashner says there are ways the company provides incentives to its customer bases, so that rates can be adjusted downward (or at least not go up by as much as they might otherwise) based on the rate of return on composting and recycling. “Recycling programs are more expensive than throwing it in the landfill,” he says.

For the time being, Recology will inherit rates set by Ratto in the municipalities and areas that it currently serves, which includes Novato in Marin County, along with the whole of unincorporated West Marin.

While Trump was busy tending his various alt-right dumpster fires and tweeting from the sandbox, world leaders were digging into the dirt of carbon-emission-reduction and embracing the Recology model at the Paris Climate Summit in December.

The upshot of the climate conference was to highlight that creating healthy soil through composting could conspire to offset between half and all carbon emissions. The Recology model is custom-tailored to that end, collecting food and yard waste in its urban outposts and providing the ensuing soil to farms around the Bay Area.

The company’s Jepson Prairie Organics facility in Vacaville has emerged as a go-to facility for journalists and officials from other states and countries who want to get a glimpse of what a super-advanced compost facility can do.

Recology is among the largest waste-collection firms in the United States (Waste Management is the industry’s largest player and has contracts throughout Marin County municipalities), and business really hit its stride in the early aughts when the San Francisco food-scrap and yard-waste composting program demonstrated that the proof of concept was sound and economically viable. Since then, “the state has done a lot of regulation in this area,” says Potashner. “The whole world has looked at San Francisco and taken that model.”

As is often the case with wholesome and cutting-edge public policy, California has taken a lead and used the Recology success story to game out a future California where, by 2022, all state jurisdictions will have to have implemented a food-waste diversion program. The aggression is warranted, Potashner says, given that 30 to 40 percent of all compostable trash material currently winds up in landfills.

With the sale of Ratto finalized, the next step for Recology, Potashner says, will be to go through a contract-reassignment process at each of the North Bay jurisdictions that has a Ratto contract, including the Marin County contracts.

Interviewed on Aug. 11, Potashner said that work should be completed by mid-October. “These types of deals happen somewhat frequently,” he says. “We don’t expect any problems.”

North Bay labor activist Marty Bennett applauded the acquisition as he highlighted Recology’s unique status as an employee-owned company and one of the top-five largest garbage-collection outfits in the nation. Bennett labored mightily with the North Bay Jobs with Justice coalition to get Ratto workers under the Teamsters umbrella in May. “I would say that in terms of labor standards, Recology maintains perhaps the highest in the entire industry,” says Bennett as he notes that waste-collection is the fifth most hazardous industry in America. The only possible knock on Recology, he says, is that as an expanding business, it’s also in some way putting those labor and environmental standards somewhat at risk.

Recology currently boasts an average recyclable-retrieval rate of between 80 and 85 percent, Bennett says, but is entering a Sonoma County landscape where Ratto was “down there at around 39 percent.”

He credits the company with “expanding cautiously as it works to replicate the San Francisco model” as he notes (and the company website verifies) that Recology currently collects the garbage in 127 communities in California.

Locally, the multiple failures of Ratto to fulfill its contract led Santa Rosa to sue the company for more than $12 million. The Santa Rosa garbage contract alone is worth some $27 million.

The union-membership won by the 440-odd Ratto employees in Sonoma County is safe even if there’s a promised review of current Ratto personnel on the horizon. All of Recology’s numerous facilities in California are union shops, which makes for a better shop, overall, when there is labor buy-in to the overall prospects for the company.

“It’s an interesting dynamic,” says Potashner, “where you have union members that are also employee owners of the company. Yeah, they wear two hats, but at the end of the day, we do make it work.” He says that as the Ratto deal plays out, Recology’s personnel decisions moving forward will have a sorting-out process all its own. “We’re going to have everyone go through a pretty rigorous process to see who is going to be a good fit moving forward.”

The Recology push into Marin and Sonoma counties itself looks like a great fit on paper, given the North Bay’s position as the land of milk and honey and wine and weed, and cows, and Potashner says the high level of engagement on climate-aware environmental issues in the region is a particular opportunity for the company and North Bay residents to exploit to its maximal potential.

Still, he offered words of caution as the company veep stressed that buy-in from residents and the municipalities is critical to the company’s zero-waste calling card. Residents need ongoing education into which waste stream goes into which curbside container. “As I said, Recology is not a magic sauce where we can just do it on our own,” Potashner says as he highlights that buy-in from public works departments and the public is key to the zero-waste movement.

Part of the push will be the arrival in the North Bay of Recology’s squads of consumer educators. “They go door-to-door to educate people on the bins,” Bennett says, with a certain sense of awe and pleasure at the thought. “This is a sea change.”

In a quick interview on Tuesday, Aug. 15, Marin County supervisor Dennis Rodoni, whose district covers the Ratto-contracted West Marin townships now under the Recology umbrella, says he was unaware that the sale had been finalized, but was psyched to hear about it from a reporter.

“That’s good news,” Rodoni says. “I’m glad it is moving forward.”

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