Oakland council votes to roll back compost collection rates after restauranteurs protest

A Waste Management collection truck during a daily pickup in Oakland, CA

A Waste Management collection truck during a daily pickup in Oakland, CA

Oakland’s highly controversial composting collection rates have now dropped thanks to a city council vote Tuesday night to amend the $1 billion waste collection contract signed earlier this summer with Waste Management and California Waste Solutions.

The original contract, approved on July 1 as part of Oakland’s “Zero Waste” program, which aims to reduce the city’s overall waste production by 90 percent, created an 80 to 120 percent increase in composting fees for many local businesses. After an outcry from restaurant owners, primarily organized through the Oakland Indie Alliance (OIA), Waste Management representatives returned to the negotiation table with City Administrator Sabrina Landreth to hammer out a new deal.

“Unfortunately, the contract that was passed by the previous city council was punishing our restaurant owners,” said Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington (District 4) the morning after the new vote passed. “What we passed last night was getting to a place were our commercial businesses’ composting rates are now 70 percent of the garbage rate.”

Through the newly amended contract, compost collection rates immediately dropped to 30 percent below that of trash collection. Business’ compost rates will be determined by the size of the bin they use, as well as the frequency of collection. To achieve citywide cost reductions, Waste Management negotiators reconfigured programs to create easements for low-income seniors and exemptions for multi-family building owners still occupying a second unit, and lowered the number of daily pickups around the city for illegal dumping. They also cancelled plans for a local customer call center, which was projected to have cost $800,000.

“This is just one hiccup in the process, but like all contracts, we go through our adjustments,” said David Tucker, Waste Management’s director of community and public relations. “We’re happy that we’re now able to move forward, and refocus our attention to providing quality services to the City of Oakland to help them reach their Zero Waste goals.”

At Luka’s Taproom & Lounge, owner Maria Alderete had boycotted composting until satisfactory rate reductions were made.

Earlier this summer, she’d learned her compost pickup rates would go up 65 percent, but now she expects them to only go up 24 percent. “We are in the process of returning to composting,” said Alderete. “About 70 percent of our waste is compost, and it’s the right thing to do.”

While Washington says she welcomes the outcome, she would like the city to examine the contract awards process more closely. “I’m pleased that we were able to help our restaurant owners, but overall I still feel very frustrated that the contract was such a burden on our residents and businesses alike” she said.

“I’ve asked the city auditor to look into the entire process that went into executing this contract,” she continued. “From start to finish, I think we need to start at the very outset, where we put out our Request for Proposals from companies all the way through the final city council vote.”

Council member Noel Gallo (District 5), who voted “no” on the amendments, believes the reductions don’t go far enough to encompass all Oaklanders. “If you reduce for one, you also need to reduce for the other,” he said. Pointing out that contract changes mainly affect restaurant owners, Gallo says it’s the single-family and multi-family homes that are “bearing the cost for rate increases.”

“The impact is significant due to our poor, below basic, deliverance on this contract from the very beginning to today,” he continued. “I think that we weren’t completely honest with the residents in terms of being able to provide a fair rate increase to be able to pick up their trash.”

“We could have gone a lot further,” said Gallo.

When the special meeting of city council was adjourned, councilmembers took time to shake hands with smiling local restaurateurs who advocated for the rate reductions. “What we wanted tonight was a ‘yes’ vote so that we could move forward and get some relief, and we got it tonight,” said Gail Lillian, owner of Liba Falafel and an organizer for OIA. “We needed some immediate relief. I am sad and reluctant that we had to take that relief at the expense of all the other things that are wrong in this contract, but it was a start.”

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