Recology bin fire
A 2016 trash fire provides a fitting analogy for 2020. Photo by George Lipp

The state of San Francisco these days is such that when an elected official mentions “the shit hitting the fan,” you need to slow them down and ask for specifics: “What shit? And what fan?”

This city’s struggles right now — between a pandemic of corruption investigations, a raft of pandemic-induced fiscal nightmares, and an out-and-out pandemic — resemble those too-busy tableaus in Marvel action movies in which the point of view zooms around a crowded battlefield, fixating for a fleeting moment on separate areas of struggle while the orchestral score swells. 

Let’s focus, for a moment, on the garbage bins. You can play this in the background if you like.  

Back in October, we noted that refuse collection giant Recology was the source of the supermajority of dollars in slush funds controlled by disgraced ex-Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru — and the garbage rates you and I pay ballooned more than 20 percent while that money was being funneled into the slush funds.  

In November, an ousted Recology executive was federally charged in an alleged bribery scheme in which Nuru and Recology employees purportedly conspired to jack up municipal collection rates. 

And, in December, a proposed $62.5 million Recology contract to collect the city’s municipal waste came before the Board of Supervisors

So, that’s bad timing. You’re supposed to pull the ripcord on the parachute before you hit the ground. Because it’s clear that Recology and the city were busy negotiating this contract extension well after Nuru was arrested and charged, and well after responsible elements at Recology — and, let’s be honest, the city of San Francisco — should’ve known what was coming down. 

Perhaps someone should’ve mentioned this before a contract was up for approval before the full Board of Supervisors. If you see something, say something, as the expression goes. 

This is what Supervisor Aaron Peskin was getting at when he questioned city officials about how this contract “got so far.” He did not receive an adequate answer. 

And, as such, this board meeting began to somewhat resemble the conclusion of a Scooby-Doo caper: Recology would’ve gotten away with it, too — if it weren’t for those meddling Feds

This contract was, in the end, relegated back to a Board committee. Peskin tells me that Recology has offered to keep collecting the city’s municipal waste at its prior rate until a new contract is approved — which he believes “means the new contract was too rich.”

These, incidentally, are the rates the city pays Recology to pick up its own municipal waste. Regarding the rates you or your landlord pay for Recology to pick up your waste, city apparatchiks have insisted to our elected officials that these fees — the ones a series of meticulously detailed federal charges allege were augmented due to a campaign of bribery and chicanery — were arrived at fairly. 

Well, perhaps. Perhaps Nuru took the money to do something he’d do anyway, and push through something the city was inclined to do anyway. “Hustling some money” and “ripping off someone who was not very smart” is, after all, the Willie Brown-approved behavior for elected officials that he expounded upon in his column in our city’s newspaper of record. 

The problem here is that Brown’s system could apply to not just Nuru, but the city writ large. And the one being ripped off in that scenario isn’t Recology — it’s us. 

Because the city was inclined to approve the rate hike. And that’s because when Recology pocketed more money from San Francisco’s ratepayers, Recology paid more money to San Francisco’s government. 

When those rates were hiked in 2017, Recology directed $11.5 million to the Department of the Environment and $8.5 million to Public Works itself — the department that, as noted earlier, has a great deal of influence on tabulating and approving Recology’s rates. 

“Public Works is both Recology’s regulator — and an interested party,” Peskin says. “That behavior must be reformed. The regulator has to become independent.” 

Contractor and permit expediter Walter Wong, right, pictured here in 2018 with ex-Public Works boss Mohammed Nuru. Photo by Susana Bates for Drew Alitzer Photography.

The origins of this untenable situation harken to this city’s political Pleistocene. In 1932, our voters opted to allow only Recology’s ancestral companies to haul waste within city limits — that’s right, a voter-approved monopoly. 

Recology has grown into a wealthy company with no shortage of political allies of all political stripes. When Quentin Kopp in 2012 put a measure on the ballot that would’ve broken this monopoly and subjected Recology to its first rounds of competitive bidding since the Hoover Administration, it was denounced by both the city’s Democratic and Republican parties and spurned by 77 percent of the voters.

Well, that was then and this is now. But putting a similar measure on the ballot would have to come later. Much later: Barring some manner of a special election, the soonest such a vote could come is in 2022. 

Peskin, however, wants to move sooner than that. He recently pored through the ‘32 ordinance binding this city to Recology. And he sees possibilities. 

“Public Works is both Recology’s regulator — and an interested party. That behavior must be reformed.”

Supervisor Aaron Peskin

When Peskin begins to dig into legislation, it feels a bit like Steve Young busting into the secondary and swerving around the field. In other words, it’s intriguing and fun — but, likely, less fun for the Deputy City Attorneys who have to keep track of what we can do and what we can’t. And, quite possibly, much less fun for Recology. 

Peskin has interesting ideas about what we can do. Perusing the ’32 ordinance, he notes that, federal charges or not, only Recology can be paid to haul away refuse. But there’s nothing in there about people hauling it away for free. Considering paper products are exempted from this ordinance, he theorizes that San Francisco could enter into future contracts in which a collector or collectors pick up materials for free, and then do with it what they see fit. 

“There would appear to be many markets out there wherein a refuse collector can pick stuff up and make money off it,” Peskin says, “without charging.” 

Can we do that? Maybe. Should we do that? Maybe. Maybe not. Is this potential leverage to get a better deal from Recology? 

Yes. Yes it is. 

San Francisco’s garbage rates are, actually, middle-of-the-pack in the Bay Area. Even without competitive bidding.

But we could do better. There’s no reason not to. The alternative is to acquiesce to contracts that are too rich. 

And that’s not very smart. 

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Joe was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left.

“Your humble narrator” was a writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015, and a senior editor at San Francisco Magazine from 2015 to 2017. You may also have read his work in the Guardian (U.S. and U.K.); San Francisco Public Press; San Francisco Chronicle; San Francisco Examiner; Dallas Morning News; and elsewhere.

He resides in the Excelsior with his wife and three (!) kids, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

The Northern California branch of the Society of Professional Journalists named Eskenazi the 2019 Journalist of the Year.

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14 Comments

  1. I’m a self-employed junker , I pick up refuse all day everyday 7 days a week .it can be done you can have people pick up stuff for free ..but , your talking about a whole city .. !? Recology is equipt to do this ..no way around it. If you have people pick up refuse for free .. around the city .your going to end up having a big ass mess .. people do not and will not take EVERYTHING. and A JUNKER isn’t doing it for free either. It’s best to keep recology. Breakdown that number from them ..to fit you. Both of you need to understand .

  2. Peskin has had a cozy relationship with Recology, even acting as their CEO’s presenter for Chinatown Cultural Center man of the year award. Did a nice narration of a film honoring Recology, too. Nothing happens in City Hall without his knowledge and/or approval.
    What he knows about the garbage business is practically zero. ““There would appear to be many markets out there wherein a refuse collector can pick stuff up and make money off it,” Peskin says, “without charging.” Paper? Printing and writing paper markets have collapsed during Covid. Multiple recycled paper mills have been closing in the US in 2020. There is a market for cardboard, still, as Amazon has driven up demand.

  3. Ugh, legal acrobatics indicate a fundamental flaw in the whole scheme. Once it gets that complicated public fleecing is mandatory. As I understand the Kopp measure was scuttled by the Port of SF. Which has a vested interest in waste management, since the Port Lands near Islas Creek are leased for mountains of refuse. Now there is a place to park a fan. Peskin is giving it a shot? Good, okay. Not to look a gift speedo in the teeth, but yes the City should have known earlier. I advise the City leaders to stop swallowing the City Department’s Power Point Presentations, just assume they are double dealing as a precautionary principle. And stop being a passive flattered audience to a bloated City PR propaganda machine paid for by the mal-informed food servers and Uber drivers.

    1. When the Western SOMA Citizens Planning Task was working in the late 2000s, TF chairJim Meko’s motion to prohibit City staff from using powerpoint presentations at TF meetings was one of the best policies we adopted.

      1. The City ought to limit the “External Affairs” and “Communications” staffing to a smaller percentage of the org chart. SFPUC for example has about 2,300 employees and 50 of those are in Public Relations jobs. So about 2.2% of the staff is in the Ministry of Truth and Sparkles, not clearing pipes, fixing pumps, disinfecting water or any other sort of critical operation. 10 such staffers is maybe too many. Rec and Parks according to the web has the same number of staff and half the PR but horrifically (I think) 1400 are exempt, meaning they have less job security and less ability to raise a fuss or blow a whistle. Maybe they are seasonal positions but still, it warrants a look. The take away is the City is an old fashioned nooks-and-crannies calcified bureaucracy. There is plenty of Mission Critical work to do that deserves full benefits and these phony-baloney jobs serve a very few.

  4. It’s all hokey.. I used to work at a bar in the city where the (p.c.) Latin community would take all of our cardboard.. and all of our bottles and cans.. yet recology still forced our business to pay for the blue recycling can (the big one).. even though it was empty on the nights we had to put out our garbage. So for households and businesses in the city.. they are making money on what we are forced to recycle.. and then recology turns around and sells it to someone else and makes money on top of that.. that’s double gauging it’s own citizens.. it’s like shi**ing in your own back yard. Not cool.

  5. I dump everything in open dumpsters. Most are closed, but some are open, and in these times all the usual users are closed down. I dump anything and everything without consideration…except I do make an effort to put cardboard in cardboard-only dumpsters. But, yeah, get your list of open dumpsters, dump on Sunday nights, enjoy. In a pinch, just pull up behind someplace without cameras and dump away. The city is already done for, so no loss as I see it.

    1. I’m hoping this is some kind of parody I’m too foolish to get, but taking the hard-to-handle wastes (ex. Plastic, for which the recycling market has collapsed), and sorting the waste selfish idiots can’t be bothered to handle is why we all have to pay for this service.

      I’m assuming there will be more oversight into Recology’s rates going forward, and more direct linkage between their cost drivers and said rates. Alas, it seems that won’t free us from having to pay costs sue to selfish bad actors.

  6. That’s because your recycling in the blue bins was factored in to off set Recology cost. Because the city allows your darling “collectors” to steal the content their is no cost reduction to Recology hence rates go up. Also the State pays double because they provide assistance to regional garage companies AND they pay again to these darling “collectors”.
    Waste collection is a public utility (look up the definition) NOT a private business and that’s the problem. Peaking is trying to run it as a private business!

  7. Why do I get the sense this will turn out like the POA contract? Some hoopla for the media, but the same ole same old.

    Peskin? He could redeem himself as an effective crusader, but … don’t bet on it. Just getting his name in the news, to my POV.

    I’ve heard SF is middle-of-the-pack re: prices. They are pretty damn high though, for what we put out; about $30/wk for a small Black, green and 64 blue (rarely full). And the service is frequently rather poor (leaving cans in the roadway!!). Not much will happen though as long as most voters don’t have to pay attention or pay for this malfeasance
    Its a necessary service; but there is a lot of cushioning, both for the workers and mngmnt, who are all compensated v well.

    1. I collected for Sunset Scavenger for 26 years, you complain about drivers making too much money, their base pay is just under $100,000 a year and according to city stats that is poverty pay. I paid with my body doing this job for all those years, I am limited physically so don’t throw the drivers under the bus ! Go after the executives because we know they have been doing this shady dealings for years and the Union is not clean either !!!!!!

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