After a yearlong battle with its largest recycling hauler over money and contamination, San Jose agreed to allow California Waste Solutions to service 166,000 homes for another year.
It’s a decision that means nearly one hundred CWS employees get to keep their jobs.
CWS employees in January showed up in strength at City Hall in bright yellow vests to protest a staff recommendation not to approve a 15-year contract extension. CWS requested a nearly 60 percent price increase, something that CEO David Duong said would put them at competitive rates with another city recycling hauler, GreenTeam.
City staff rebuked the per-household increase, which spiked from $9.47 to a proposed $15.10, and cited poor performance by the hauler, an increasing number of resident complaints and a high-rate of non-collection notices. The notices are issued when a cart isn’t collected because it contains trash and non-recyclable materials.
Environmental Services Department Director Kerrie Romanow could not be reached for comment.
But Duong said the city has failed to assist with educating residents, didn’t implement a larger garbage bin program to help reduce contaminated materials in the recycling bin and financially benefits off of CWS’ disposal of non-recyclable waste to landfills.
The new city agreement allows CWS to enter into a year-long performance period before the city agrees to the 15-year contract extension. According to a memo issued by Romanow and Assistant City Manager Kip Harkness, CWS must meet three conditions for the extension:
- A 75 percent customer satisfaction rate, determined by a third-party quarterly survey.
- Liquidated damages that don’t exceed $30,000, or $7,500 per quarter.
- The disposal of less than 20 percent of non-program material to the landfill.
Duong said he accepted the outcome and wants to focus on providing “excellent service” to San Jose residents and building a better relationship with the Environmental Services Department.
Under the agreement, the city will take over the recycling education aspect of the program. The two sides decided on a rate of $13.15 per household with adjustments made as the rate of contamination in CWS’ facility fluctuates. Duong deemed it acceptable, but still not in line with other local haulers.
A growing problem: Dirty recyclables
An ongoing dispute between the city and CWS is the high rate of contamination that ends up at the hauler’s North San Jose recycling facility. CWS estimates that about 40 percent of what it collects shouldn’t be there. Instead, it belongs in a landfill or hazardous waste.
Duong said that CWS has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to educate San Jose residents on what belongs in the recycling carts. Duong added that the city’s garbage bin is too small and residents are forced to place trash in the blue recycling bins. He said the city rejected his proposal to offer larger trash bins at better rates, which could help reduce contamination rates.
“It’s not like people do not know what goes in where,” he said. “It’s just that their cart of garbage fills up.”
Although CWS workers issue notices and refuse to pick up recycling bins filled with trash, some non-recyclable materials sneak through. And CWS is stuck footing the bill, Duong said.
“Every pound of garbage (in) the recycling bin, we end up picking it up, processing them and pay to get rid of it to the landfill,” Duong said.
Of the 40 percent of contaminated material coming into CWS’ facility, 13 percent is salvaged and sold to other markets. The remaining 27 percent goes to the dump where Duong said the city gets a second kickback: A rebate for the garbage that CWS disposed.
Pilot program goes nowhere
According to the city’s website, the smallest cart offered for garbage is 32-gallons and costs $410.28 a year. The next size, 64-gallons, is $820.56 a year, and the largest size, 96-gallons, costs $1,230.84 a year. Duong said that about 90 percent of residents opt for the lowest cost bin.
Recycling bins come in all three sizes with no additional cost to residents.
In Jan. 2016, the City Council approved a pilot program for larger garbage carts for single-family residences to see if it would help reduce trash in the recycling bins. But Duong said nothing ever materialized. A review of 2016 meeting minutes from the City Council, the Rules and Open Government Committee and the Transportation and Environment Committee showed no evidence of program results.
Jennie Loft, a spokeswoman for the department, could not comment on those claims or the city’s financial benefit from the CWS partnership. Instead, Loft said the city will take over recycling education and outreach responsibilities starting in July.
The human costs of contamination
Collecting non-recyclable materials has more than just a monetary cost. CWS workers are forced to sift through a mix of trash that has turned up needles, sanitary waste and even dead animals.
Maria Leinel, who’s been with CWS for 17 years, said she’s been injured on the job multiple times from chemicals that should have been disposed in hazardous waste. Still, she needs the high-paying job.
Rocio Gomez, her coworker, said if CWS doesn’t pass the one-year performance period, she worries that several dozen CWS employees could lose their jobs.
“I like working here,” Gomez said. “I’ve been here many years. I’d be happy if they (renew) it because everybody needs a job here.”
City staff’s agreement with CWS is expected to be reviewed by the City Council for approval in the next two months.
Contact Grace Hase at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @grace_hase on Twitter.