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Trash Talk

Recycling Efforts Draw Praise and Fire


Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Santa Barbara City Council discussion on Tuesday of the state of its recycling efforts bore a striking similarity to a water polo game: All the real action took place out of sight. On the surface, the council deliberations resembled a typical staff presentation detailing goals achieved and progress yet to be made. To that end, the City of Santa Barbara can lay claim to diverting-recycling-a full 67 percent of materials from the Tajiguas landfill. By the standard of state law-which mandates 50 percent diversion-that’s a screaming success.

By Paul Wellman

BFI executive Thor Schmidt

But lurking just beneath the surface was the extreme impatience and vexation of several councilmembers over lack of progress on what they regard as basic recycling efforts that should be taking place within city limits. Chief among these is the absence of a mandatory commercial recycling program or a requirement that the city’s two franchised trash haulers-BFI and MarBorg-provide recycling services to Santa Barbara’s apartment dwellers. Likewise behind schedule is a pilot program to recycle and compost food scraps. (BFI executive Thor Schmidt said he was excited to begin that program with Cottage Health System in the months ahead.)

Perhaps most agitating of all was the three years it took city public works officials to force BFI to comply with what the officials say were the terms of its contract and offer its customers one free green-waste recycling bin. Only last Friday, said city solid waste czar Steve Mack, did BFI agree to credit roughly $190,000 to the accounts of 907 customers overbilled for green cans they should have gotten free. In addition, BFI agreed to pay the city $100,000 for staff time related to the green can investigation. Those credits, he said, should be finalized as of April 13. Negotiations between City Hall and BFI proved protracted and grueling, requiring no fewer than three separate service audits.

The problem was brought to light more than three years ago by BFI’s archrival, MarBorg Industries, when MarBorg started serving half the city. But even after the problem was exposed, City Hall proved slow to act, much to the exasperation of councilmembers like Brian Barnwell. Twenty-four hours before Tuesday’s meeting, Barnwell was threatening to find BFI in breach of its contract over the green-waste bin debacle. But during Tuesday’s meeting, Barnwell proved more tempered. Even so, he blamed the distraction caused by the green-waste bins for the city’s failure to meet its own goals and timelines in passing ordinances requiring commercial recycling and construction and demolition materials recycling. That delay, he charged, resulted in Santa Barbara sending to the Tajiguas landfill enough recyclable material to fill City Hall three times.

While not so vivid, Councilmember Das Williams also suggested that the city’s diversion numbers were not so impressive, noting that 15 percent of what the city now attempts to recycle is rejected and shipped to the landfill. He also was concerned that 70 percent of the city’s success in recycling depended on MarBorg’s ambitious program to process construction and demolition materials. While MarBorg’s Mario Borgatello was on hand to tell the City Council to pat itself on the back for helping him build-and finance-his giant recycling facility, he also warned the council of bills in the State Legislature that would, for example, require cities to divert 75 percent of their materials.

Others, like Councilmember Grant House, seemed less focused on behind-the-scenes machinations. House said he wished someone could help businesses that handle large quantities of Styrofoam. Help, he was told, was not on the way. But help may come in the not-too-distant future for people looking to dispose of clothes so old and ratty that secondhand stores won’t accept them. And within the month, the City Council will hear what its options are for banning or restricting plastic bags and certain forms of Styrofoam.

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