In the last Open Trench I started a discussion about the messy situation with trash hauling in Santa Rosa and more generally in Sonoma County. The bottom line for Santa Rosa residents and businesses is that their costs for services will soar in 2018, when a new trash hauler, with a new contract, takes over.  What do I mean by “soar?” Costs could double or even triple, from less than $200 per year (for residential service) to more than $500.

It will be even worse for city schools, which have had free service from the current trash hauler. The City of Santa Rosa notified schools in March that they must contract for service beginning in 2018 because the agreement with a new trash hauler will not require free services for schools. The Rincon Valley Union School District wrote to the city in May, alarmed by their estimate that trash collection could cost $60,000 in 2018.  And that’s just for Rincon Valley’s eight campuses. Imagine the total cost for all of Santa Rosa’s schools, which number about 40 more.

As noted above, Santa Rosa will have a new contract for trash hauling in 2018. Company A has the contract now but has had numerous compliance problems and is not seeking to continue after this year. Company B wants to buy Company A now and wants the new contract in 2018. But Companies C and D are the purported finalists for the new contract.  As of June, the winner has not been announced.

Whichever company wins the new contract (worth tens of millions of dollars) will have to comply with a Memorandum of Agreement and a Waste Delivery Agreement overseen by the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency. This is a joint powers entity of the county and all cities in the county, obligating everyone (except Petaluma) to deliver all trash to the landfill and transfer stations operating under an up-to-55-year contract with a company called Redwood Services. The trash—meaning actual garbage as opposed to recycling or green waste—is subject to a “tip” fee of $117.50 per ton, of which $3.45 per ton goes back to Sonoma County Waste Management to fund its operations. Thus, there is a very long contract with Redwood Services, featuring the highest tip fee of virtually any other landfill in Northern California and a mandate that garbage must go to their facilities.  Other tip fees I researched ranged from $26 to $92 per ton.

Where else do troubles arise with long-term, expensive, inescapable obligations?  (Oh, yes, with public employee pension. But I digress.)

It must be hard for companies to bid on trash-hauling in Santa Rosa when the cost of certain risks is not known. What risks? The contract will call for at least 55 percent “diversion” (recycling) of trash, heading toward a State goal of 75 percent diversion by 2020. Recycling may seem simple, but it isn’t. The big issue is cross-contamination, which turns recycled materials (that do not need to go to the land fill) into plain garbage, which must go to the landfill and be subject to the “tip” fee.  How does cross-contamination occur? It may be accidental. Or, it may be caused by bad management. For instance, Company A, the current contract holder, has a recycling facility that is not licensed to receive and process garbage. The facility is not entirely covered by a roof. Rain on uncovered paper can turn recycled materials into “garbage,” which then must go to the landfill.  And handling “garbage” without the proper facility permit has cost Company A hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.

Or, cross-contamination may occur deliberately. Trash rates are determined by the size of garbage bins, which incentivizes residents to choose the smallest container. At the same time the large recycling container is free. What could happen to excess garbage? Yes, it might go into the recycle bin, thus causing cross-contamination. Trash haulers cannot touch the garbage once it hits the truck, so cross-contamination costs the hauler money in tip fees.

I discovered that recycling services are free throughout Sonoma County for businesses, which carefully separate various materials for recycling. But there are substantial fines for cross-contamination and there are inspectors looking for cross-contamination.  I was told that the fines are so outrageously high that many apartment houses quit the program and now send everything out as garbage.

I asked a knowledgeable person to give me “the bottom line” on trash-hauling in Sonoma County. To summarize his response: “It’s really messed up. I’ve never seen a County with such convoluted rules. The systems and mandates favor the County at the expense of cities. Because of environmental concerns, the next great challenge for new haulers will be getting permits for recycling and composting facilities. Rates are too low and must go up, because current rates can’t cover the cost of services. Trash has to be hauled big distances. We need to face the true cost of hauling garbage.”

Prediction: Big rate hikes ahead.

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