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Aaron Sankin
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Recology Wars: Proposition A Backers Look To Take Down San Francisco's Biggest Monopoly

Posted: Updated: 05/29/2012 6:44 pm

San Francisco Proposition A

SAN FRANCISCO -- The first thing you need to know about Proposition A is that it's not going to pass.

Maybe that's a little harsh.

Let's just start by saying the June ballot measure aimed at ending California waste management titan Recology's monopoly on every aspect of San Francisco's trash collection system faces a serious uphill battle.

It's opposed by the local Democratic Party, the local Republican Party (yes, it exists), business groups, labor groups, environmental groups and, most of all, Recology itself.

On the other side, a handful of activists--including a former supervisor candidate, a retired judge and the CEO of a competing garbage management firm--believe San Francisco shouldn't allow a private company to automatically control the city's trash system in perpetuity based on rules put in place nearly a century ago.

"We don't even have a contract with Recology for what they do," Tony Kelly, one of Prop A's authors, told The Huffington Post. "[As a result], we pay too much for our services. San Francisco pays $220 million a year, San Jose pays less than half that with a higher population and a bigger land area."

Critics of the measure charge that, despite the lack of competitive bidding, Recology does a remarkably good job of managing the city's waste. San Francisco recycles 77 percent of its refuse, the highest diversion rate of any major city in the country. And provisions in Prop A could very well put the city's stated goal of diverting 100 percent of its waste by 2020 in jeopardy.

TALKING TRASH

Prior to 1932, San Francisco had multiple competing trash collectors operating on a house-by-house basis throughout the city. The system led to conflict and confusion.

No one wanted to see their trashmen fighting, so voters passed a measure that year aimed at making things more orderly. The city was divided into in 97 separate parcels, and whichever company held the rights to a particular zone became the exclusive garbage collector in said area.

Over the course of the next 80 years, the company that would eventually call itself Recology (a portmanteau of "recycle" and "ecology") acquired the rights to every single parcel in the city, largely though mergers an acquisitions.

Recology took its monopoly on garbage collection and grew it into nearly universal control over the city's entire refuse system. In addition to trash, the company also runs recycling, owns and operates the city's transfer station in Visitacion Valley (where the waste is sorted) and distributes it to its eventual home in a landfill.

Since the 1932 law was passed by voters and written into the city charter, it can't be changed by legislative fiat. It must go back before the public.

A LOCK ON LANDFILL

The one part of the city's waste system that Recology doesn't control (or at least didn't until last year) is the landfill itself. That contract is instead awarded by the Department of Environment and approved by the Board of Supervisors.

For years, the final resting place of San Francisco's trash has been Livermore's Altamont Landfill operated by international trash behemoth Waste Management. But when Waste Management's contract came up for renewal in 2011 based on a projection that the city's landfill would be completely full by 2015, Recology submitted a bid for the city to switch to its own facility in Yuba City.

As it does when it makes any major decision, the Board turned to the city's budget analyst Harvey Rose to run the numbers.

And he did a good bit more than that. He called for the outright repeal of the 1932 law.

Rose noted in his report that while "it may be advantageous for a city to have the collection of refuse provided exclusively by a single firm...such a firm should be selected through the city's normal competitive bidding process."

The dry language belies the severity of the Rose's point. Instead of simply ruling on which landfill option was going to be the most cost effective for the city, the man who may be the single most universally respected figure in all of San Francisco politics politely called for burning the city's garbage contracting process to the ground and starting from scratch.


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