Garbage rate structure the problem

Following the reports that Berkeley’s success in recycling led to unexpected deficits, Martin Bourque, executive director of the Ecology Center, responded to Berkeleyside. The Ecology Center is a non-profit organization that runs Berkeley’s recycling program, as well as farmers markets and other programs.

Recent coverage of the Solid Waste Management Fund deficit in Berkeley wrongly places the blame on recycling and composting. Recycling and Composting are cheaper to provide than garbage disposal. The problem lies in how the services are paid for.

It also failed to cover the fact that the residential fee problem is only a minor part of the picture. The real story is that garbage is the back end of the consumer culture, so when consumerism slows so do the tons of garbage, and therefore the revenue, yet the infrastructure and staffing still need to be in place.

The problem, which all cities are facing, is that as more materials are disposed of through recycling and composting, the bill to residents is still only tied to the garbage can.


Whether a public or private entity provides the service the issue is the same: when we produce less garbage and opt for a smaller cheaper can, revenue goes down. All of the services still need to be paid for, but are not showing up on the bill. So it is the rate model that needs rethinking, not the services.

With the City providing the service at least the issues are more transparent and can be addressed locally. Transnational garbage companies respond to their remote headquarters and there always has to be a piece of the pie for far away CEOs and their shareholders. When Waste Management locked out employees for a month in 2007 no local City could address the problem directly. Garbage piled up and scabs were brought in, it was a HUGE mess. So yes, there are good reasons for a City to do it themselves, or to contract with smaller local entities.

Berkeley has always been somewhat schizophrenic on scavenging: while it represents a loss in revenue it is hard to police and and prohibition would take money from hardworking folks who are in the extremely hard to employ category producing other costly impacts. Perhaps this budget crisis will shift the debate.

Berkeley is not unique in this rate structure struggle. What would be unique is if Berkeley actually tackles this structural rate problem or takes the leap to bi-weekly garbage collection. These are two forward thinking approaches that may actually solve the problem rather than masking it by more across the board rate increases.