Bay Area garbage hauler pushing for fee if non-recyclable items placed in recycling bins

RICHMOND, Calif. -- West Contra Costa County garbage hauler Republic Services wants permission to penalize customers for putting non-recyclable items in their recycle carts.

The company set off a wave of angst last fall when it began auditing blue bins of West Contra Costa County residents, and tagging those with a $26.60 fine for what it said was "contamination" in the bins.

Residents were outraged saying there was no warning, no clear rules about what's accepted in the carts, and thought they were doing everything right.

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"Yes, I got a contamination notice from Republic Services,'' said Christian Smith of Richmond, who says he's very careful to recycle responsibly. Bottles, cans and cardboard go into the blue cart. "We were at a loss to figure out what we did wrong."

Seven On Your Side found out the company has no authority to issue the fines. The Richmond City Council and Contra Costa County also told the company to stop charging the fee and give everyone their money back. The company complied, but now is asking Richmond to sanction the fees-and include it in their franchise agreement.

"I don't see anything wrong with it,'' Richmond Mayor Tom Butt said. "According to Republic Services, people are essentially putting garbage in their recycle carts and when they do that it costs a lot of money and it ruins the loads."

But many residents who were tagged say they never put trash in the recycle cart.

"We don't do that,'' said Michelle Perrin of Richmond. She and her husband didn't get a tag on their cart, just a bill in the mail for "contaminated materials.' In the cart. "It kind of makes me mad because we try to do everything right and then I find out we got a fine."

Republic promised everyone would get an explanation of what they did wrong. However, when Perrin and her husband Art contacted Republic, they were left scratching their heads.

"What she said was, you had non-recyclables in your cart..." Art Perrin said.

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"OK, so what was it?" Michelle Perrin asked. "And they couldn't explain that."

Republic says contamination is on the rise, and it's a global problem. It blamed China's new "National Sword" policy refusing to purchase all but the most pure of recycled materials. It not only means no more soiled materials, like half-full sour cream containers or greasy pizza boxes, but mixed plastics and paper.

With increasingly complex packaging, and many types of plastic, fewer materials are actually recyclable. Even mixed paper can be difficult to process, and China, the biggest buyer of U.S. recycled materials, now is buying a lot less. Processors are charging more to sort material, and haulers pay the price. Now they're turning to consumers to clean the waste stream at the source: their homes.

"This is a huge problem and we have to do something about it,'' Butt said. "If Republic needs to charge a fine I'm open to that. We just need to do it with the proper authorization and maybe some guidelines."

A second option under consideration is to allow Republic to leave a contaminated cart behind, untipped, giving residents a chance to clean it out before it would be accepted. But Republic says that could cause a health hazard if left behind until the following week's service. A customer would have to pay more than $30 for a return trip to have the errant cart picked up sooner.

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Other companies, such as Mill Valley Refuse Service, have adopted the "leave it behind" method rather than tipping the contaminated cart into the rest of the load as Republic does, thereby potentially ruining the whole load.

Republic wants to not only resume the fine, but increase the rate from $26.60 to $27.75 going forward. The company says it cited more than 1,000 homes in Richmond last fall during the auditing period.

Residents said there are too many variables that make the system unfair. First, carts are not marked with an address and some believe the auditors blamed the wrong house for contamination. Also, anyone can dump trash into someone else's bin. One man said he was cited for "kitty litter in the can" when he doesn't own a cat. Another said he was cited while he was on vacation and didn't even have his cans out.

Most of all, critics say it's unclear what's acceptable in the recycle bins anymore. After ABC7's Building a Better Bay Area report focused on recycling, dozens of questions poured in to the station asking what can go in the recycle cart. The answer often is based on where a resident lives, as each jurisdiction has its own contract with garbage haulers and recyclers, including what can be recycled. Those rules keep changing as packaging changes as well.

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