San Jose trash rates expected to increase due to household waste, improper recycling
Waste bins line a neighborhood street on trash day in North San Jose. Photo by Lloyd Alaban.

San Jose residents will likely pay more to get their garbage and recycling picked up from the curb next year.

Thanks to increased single-family household waste and contaminated recyclables during the pandemic, the San Jose City Council accepted a report Monday that higher garbage rates are likely unavoidable, despite the financial strains residents are feeling.

The city will also have to get ready to implement a 2016 Senate bill, SB 1383, taking effect next year that will require cities and counties across the state to provide organic waste collection services to all residents and businesses.

Councilmembers in February heard predictions that rates would increase, but asked for ideas from officials on how to potentially avoid rate hikes that could impact already-struggling families.

“We just have to continue to find ways to keep those rates down for the families,” Councilmember Sylvia Arenas said.

Councilmember Pam Foley pointed out that water and utility rates are rising, and encouraged officials to push off rate increases another year. “It’s the wrong time” to raise rates, she said.

In February, the city’s Environmental Services Department suggested options to reduce rate increases, including eliminating its free junk pick-up program. More suggestions Monday included delaying implementation of SB 1383 and using other funding sources, such as federal stimulus money or dipping into the city’s Operations and Maintenance reserve.

Councilmembers unanimously agreed that eliminating San Jose’s highly successful junk program wasn’t ideal, and would likely result in more large waste items abandoned across the city.

If changes aren’t made, the city could end up owing about $20 million to its four contracted waste hauling companies: Greenwaste, GreenTeam, Garden City Sanitation and California Waste Solutions.

That’s because “the residential waste stream changed dramatically in 2020 due to changing resident behavior in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to a city report.

Residential waste increased and commercial waste decreased as residents became unemployed or started working from home.

On top of that, more than 50% of recycled material collected was contaminated and not able to be processed at all, according to a study of what San Joseans threw away and recycled. As a result, the city will have to pay out more to recycling service providers in 2021-2022.

Rates are predicted to increase for single-family homes from $39.12 per month to $47.33 per month if no changes are enacted. If the city withdraws about $2.5 million from its Operations and Maintenance reserve, officials predict that about $4 could be shaved off that monthly increase.

“This increased recycling contamination has significant economic and environmental impacts to the city and its residents,” the report said.

These numbers represent a huge jump for the city, which in 2015 had only a 32% contamination rate among recyclables.

“We attribute this to residents ordering a lot online (and) generating a lot of packaging,” said Valerie Osmond, deputy director of the city’s integrated waste management program. “Unfortunately I think we are also seeing a lot of contamination as residents are placing excess garbage in their recycling carts.”

The more contaminated items in a recycling bin, the more work employees and machines have to do to sort it out. Then, the cost of disposing the non-recyclables is passed on to the contractor—but only until the city pays them back during the next contract cycle.

Ultimately, those costs get passed on to consumers.

Illustration of items that should not go in your recycling cart if you are a San Jose resident. Courtesy of the city of San Jose.

“I’m concerned this has been a shift of cost from employers to residents, as employers are no longer paying as much for garbage collection,” Councilmember David Cohen said. “I’m a little concerned, I’d like to think we could do more to offset the increase on the residential side.”

Councilmembers made it clear that they would prefer the city dip into reserves than raise rates next year.

“If this isn’t an emergency, then I don’t know what is,” Arenas said.

City officials will explore whether any funds received under the American Rescue Plan, signed by President Joe Biden in March, would be eligible for use to offset rate increases.

The City Council will vote on next year’s garbage and recycling rates on June 15.

Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow @MadelynGReese on Twitter.

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