Monday, October 12, 2015

Oakland restaurants protest food waste collection hikes

(Originally published in Composting News, July 2015)

By Ken McEntee

July 20, 2015

The city of Oakland this month began its Zero Waste initiative to keep recyclable and compostable materials out of landfills. Local restaurant owners, meanwhile, were hit with a big surprise when they got their new trash bills, which took effect on July 1.

“We are shocked by the massive compost fee increases in the contract,” said Gail Lillian, owner of Liba Falafel. “Additionally, the composting fees are set higher than trash fees, serving as a deterrent for composting.”

For example, the monthly rate for collecting a 20-gallon cart of trash once a week is $27.97. The rate for the same sized cart and frequency of collection for compostables is $33.84 per month. Weekly collection of a seven-yard trash bin is $968.10 per month, compared to $1,109.75 for compostables.

As a result of a new 10-year contract with the city of Oakland that gives Waste Management of Alameda County a monopoly on the commercial collection of trash and compostables, Lillian said, her monthly charge for organics collection more than doubled, from $225 per month to $460 per month – an increase of almost $3,000 per year. Trash collection rates increased, she said, but not nearly as much as her composting bill.

In a letter to Waste Management and to Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, a group of local restaurant owners said that cost advantages of composting and recycling created strong incentives to reduce landfill use, leading to different choices when shopping for supplies and ingredients to reduce waste. It makes no sense, Lillian says, especially in light of the city’s Zero Waste initiative, to make restaurants may more to separate their compostables.

Following a protest by local restaurant owners – who have formed a new group called the Oakland Indie Alliance - City Council was considering a revised proposal that would reduce rates for organics collection to 90 percent of the trash rate. Lillian called it a short term fix.

Until the new waste contract went into effect, Waste Management controlled commercial trash collection, but companies were free to contract with other vendors for recycling and composting pickups, Lillian said. Lillian and some other restaurant owners hired Recology to take their food waste. The new contact gave Waste Management a monopoly on composting as well. The contract was approved last fall, ending a suit Waste Management filed against Oakland after the city earlier awarded an exclusive collection contract to another company.

“We expected to see a rate increase with the new contract, but we didn’t expect this,” she said.

On June 10, Lillian and about 24 other restaurant owners held a press conference in protest of the new rates on the steps of Oakland City Hall. Some brought their food waste containers with them.

“The restaurants, whom have been big supporters of composting for years, are getting massive increases in this new contract,” she said. “Some of us have seen our composting rates triple. One restaurant is getting an increase of $11,000 from last year and some others say they are being charged $8,000 more.”

A boycott of composting is one response the restaurant owners could consider, Lillian said. Unfortunately, however, they could be fined under a new law that prohibits more than 10 percent recyclables or food waste in their trash bins.

On July 20, City Council held a special meeting to consider the rate revision.

“Even at 90 percent of the trash collection rate, the charge is still 30 to 40 percent of the comparable rates for surrounding cities,” Lillian said. “In addition, the revised contract would allow Waste Management, starting next year, to recoup their losses from lowering their organics collection rates this year.”

Lillian said City Council members were “furious” about the contract and showed support for the restaurant owners. But she acknowledged that council members were negligent in approving a contract that they apparently had not read.

“I do hold them responsible because they should have done their due diligence,” Lillian said. “But I am confident that they will now act on our behalf.”

As part of the contract, she said, the city required Waste Management to switch its truck fleet to use natural gas powered vehicles. To comply, she said, Waste Management had to purchase 86 new trucks for $330,000 each.

“The city should have realizes that Waste Management was going to try to raise rates to cover those costs,” Lillian said. “We expected to get a bit of an increase but this increase isn’t what we thought they signed us up for.”

The Indie Alliance was formed in March after the city passed a minimum wage of $12.25 per hour – a 36 percent increase from the previous minimum wage.

“We’re getting squeezed,” she said. “That’s why we’ve gone from seven to 70 members in the few months. First it was the high wages, then the composting rate hike. And a $15 minimum wage is coming soon.”

Calls to city officials, including Council President Lynette Gibson McElhaney and Sean Mahar of Oakland Environmental Services, were not returned.

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