San Rafael faces rate hikes, officials say recycling is to blame

Residents of San Rafael will soon pay almost 10 percent more for garbage pick-up, and recycling is to blame. 

Trash haulers in the Bay Area, and across the country, are weathering a collapse of the recycle market, triggered by China refusing loads it deems too contaminated with food or moisture. 

Clean and dry is the new mantra at recyclers, who must pay the expense when rejected shipments are returned to the United States. 

The financial losses have caused some cities have stopped recycling altogether. 
"Those ones are out-of-state, and single stream, they smash everything together," said Joe Garbarino, of Marin Sanitary Service, "and nobody wants that paper, it's got glass in it, milk, food, everything."

Marin Sanitary has a dual-stream system: paper in one section of the cart, and metals, glass and plastics in the other portion. 

"We know how to take it out and separate, and we know how to make it clean enough so the Chinese will buy it," said Garbarino, "because they don't want to buy garbage, and I don't blame them."

Garbarino founded the nation's first county-wide curbside recycling program in 1980.

Marin Sanitary has the disposal contract, not only for San Rafael, but Larkspur, Ross and Kentfield, and those cities will be asked to approve rate hikes too.      

"It is not just us, it is all across this country," said Recycling Coordinator Jennifer Grenier Elvig, explaining how Asian nations, the traditional buyers of U.S. recyclables, have tightened their standards. 

"What China was seeing, when they open up these bales, is they see garbage and they're saying they don't want any of our garbage, " said Grenier Elvig.  

"Recycling is based on a market, so if somebody doesn't want to buy it to make it into something else, then there is no market." 

A dozen Bay Area cities have enacted rate hikes over the past year, to better reflect the actual costs of recycling. 

"Half Moon Bay, nearly 50 percent, San Ramon, 30 percent," said consultant Garth Schultz, ticking through numerous examples before the San Rafael City Council. 

Schultz analyzed the rate hike proposal, and found it fair. 

"At this point in time, it is anybody's guess where the recycling markets are going to go," Schultz told council members," because they are tied up in the trade wars between the U.S. and China."

With the stringent standards driving up costs for all recyclers, consumers are urged to sort and wash items, and avoid "wishful recycling", tossing something into the bin, hoping there is a way to recycle it. 

Doing so, says Garbarino, gums up the equipment, and takes time to retrieve, plus increases the odds of contamination. 

Recyclables, he notes, have always been a commodity- rising and falling- but these are particularly challenging times. 

"Recycling is not free, and if we want to save what's left in this world, and recycle all these items, then we have to pay to do it."