Public Comment

Commentary: Zero Waste Commission Recommends Rubbish Sorting in Stockton

By Mary Lou Van Deventer
Friday December 14, 2007

In a special meeting on Wednesday Dec. 5, the Berkeley Zero Waste Commission approved a controversial bid from a Stockton company to sort all rubbish (dry discards) that now comes through the city’s transfer station at Second and Gilman streets. It would cover about 200 tons a day of the 340 or so now landfilled. After sorting, about half the rubbish would go to landfill, some would be recycled, and some would be burned.  

The commission’s final recommendation contained compromises intended to calm recyclers, but whether they will do so is a question. Materials to be trucked include some recyclables existing recyclers could use. Recyclers would, however, have a chance to help rework the facility to intercept more materials before the dumping floor, and to pursue the large redesign and rebuild to achieve zero-waste recovery.  

If approved, the contract would begin at the end of this month and continue through June 2010. It would cost $2 million a year. Public Works Director Claudette Ford assured meeting attendees the contract could be cancelled with 30 days’ notice. Now the proposal goes to City Council for a vote on Dec. 18.  

Several groups, including Urban Ore, the Sierra Club, and the Northern California Recycling Association, have raised concerns. At issue are what problem this solution is intended to solve; the procurement process; burning discards; the environmental impacts of trucking recyclables 90 miles and dead-heading back; and the economic and environmental impacts of developing resources in the Central Valley rather than locally.  

The first question is what problem this proposal solves. The transfer station was built to handle a throughput of 400 tons a day. Currently it receives about 340 tons. City staff say they want to achieve the city’s goal of diverting 75 percent of now-wasted resources from landfill before the goal’s deadline of 2010. The followup question is why hurry without doing fuller analysis of impacts? Staff’s answers vary but fall back to not wanting to redo the RFP.  

The second issue is that the procurement process was done in a way that generated upset. Staff are now walking over hot coals as a result. Materials and tonnages were the first concern. For months staff told the commission they were working on a request for proposals (RFP) to recycle construction and demolition materials. The commission expected to see the RFP before it went out. Instead, at the September meeting, staff reported that the RFP had already been out for three weeks. It covered all rubbish, several times more material than just the construction component.  

Notification and processing vision were another issue. Urban Ore, expected to bid on construction materials recycling, wasn’t notified the RFP was available until it had only a week to respond. But no matter—the RFP envisioned a long-distance haul and bulk mechanical processing of mixed materials, judging by the requirement that any contractor must provide four highway trailers for the city to rent at $2,000 per month.  

Only one bidder responded. It is the Stockton company that bailed Berkeley out of a tough spot by taking materials when Waste Management’s San Leandro facility was closed, Berkeley’s facility was overwhelmed, and nobody closer could help.  

The Stockton facility is 90 miles away, though, and the current dump is 45 miles closer.  

So far there is no public information to answer several environmental and resource questions. What added greenhouse gases and costs will the added trucking generate? How much of a landfill’s greenhouse gases will this processing prevent (landfills’ gases are generated more by rotting materials than by dry ones). How much greenhouse gas will be generated by burning recovered wood instead of composting it? How much could be averted by composting it aerobically. Why not salvage to recover recyclables existing onsite recyclers could use? For example, Community Conservation Centers could use more cardboard, which instead will be sent to Stockton.  

The Northern California Recycling Association has called for analysis of the proposal’s environmental impact, but none has been done.  

The Zero Waste Commissioners tried to make compromises that would calm recyclers’ nerves. But they also wanted to help staff. Staff don’t want to rebid the contract because other bidders now know the Stockton rate and processing system and would shape their bids to out-compete. Stockton might raise its rates, too. So the commission recommended that City Council accept this contract, warts and all. The council will discuss it Dec. 18.