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Sonoma County Gazette
Recycled Bottles

Sorting it Out - Recology Reclaims Trash

Jul 30, 2018


By Jane Rogan

In case you haven’t heard, Recologyis the newest waste management company serving Sonoma County. They are defined in Wikipedia as “an integrated resource recovery company headquartered in San Francisco, California. The company collects and processes municipal solid waste, reclaiming useful materials that would have otherwise been buried in a landfill. Recology has been in business for 100 years.”

Nothing good comes easily

Fred Stemmler, the GM for Sonoma-Marin, tells me openly about the struggle to truly achieve the vision. “Seven months sounds like a long time to some people. But we’re in this for the long haul. The operation is complicated and we are really starting up; getting our employees trained; learning what we need to do to meet our customers’ expectations and still do the work we are dedicated to do – move zero waste into reality. “

Paul Guisti, the Regional Community and Government Affairs Manager for San Francisco, started his career on the back of a garbage truck. He says sometimes he misses it – the brisk early morning, waving at the families getting their day started. As a Collector, you are in the position of being the eyes and ears of a community. You may be the only person who notices something isn’t right with one of your customers and so you call 911. You may observe criminal activity before daybreak and notify the police. You may see a fire starting and call the local FD.

Today, more than ever, the employees of Recology are encouraged to engage with their communities in Northern California, Oregon and Washington in helpful, positive ways. Their jobs are good jobs in an industry notorious for dead-end, low-wage employment and high rates of industrial accidents. They are motivated to provide excellent customer service.

They can stop the conveyor belts at any time to check Quality Assurance. They are members of the Teamsters union paid a living wage, promoted from within, reimbursed for education expenses and have a retirement plan. The San Francisco plant is in the Hunter’s Point area and makes a point to hire people from the neighborhoods. 

As we walk about the facility we are greeted with smiles and nods. This company engages the employees and offers a variety of career opportunities for upward mobility from collectors and sorters in the trenches to drivers, community educators and international business relations professionals and the zero- waste task force.

Recology logoRecology is an employee-owned company, they – in effect – work for themselves.

Fred Stemmler, an Accountant by training, never thought he’d be in this business. “I have been impressed with Recology as a company. We are passionate about our commitment to the zero-waste movement. Every day I see employees making a positive difference for the company, the community and the world.”

Touring Recology:

So here I am, your friendly writer, hard hat fastened, florescent green vest snapped, goggles positioned ready to go on the Sonoma-Marin Recology tour – organized byNorth Bay Jobs with Justice. We’re gathered closely to hear the Supe as well as we can over the clanging and whirring of machinery. County Supervisors,James Gore from Sonoma andDamon Connolly from Marin, Zero Waste consultants, (labor and environmental activists, county and city staff), and a few reporters have been bused in to the San Francisco facility. Most of us had some idea of what we were about to see, but it is only when you peer down into the maze of color-coded conveyor belts and take in the vista of enormous bales of recycled paper that you begin to get a glimmer of how much waste is processed in a city the size of San Francisco (600 tons a day). Now multiply that by every city with a population of at least 500,000 in the U.S. and if you didn’t understand before you’ll start to understand why waste ecology is a great big deal.

In the fight to combat global warming, increasing the rates of residential and commercial recycling is believed to significantly help the effort.

Recology recycling center

Landfills are responsible for more than 25 percent of all methane gas emissions, one of the most potent greenhouse gas emissions. Recology and the City of San Francisco have attained an 85 percent diversion rate (in 2017) from landfills—the highest in North America–whereas according to a consultant’s report - the City of Santa Rosa diversion rate in 2015 was just 39 percent.   

Perhaps we’ve all approached the challenge of being a good citizen of waste reduction in different ways. There’s packaging improvement, using less and making cleaner packaging. There’s composting, a discipline that has recently become more sophisticated, allowing us to compost shredded paper and yard waste. There’s repurposing, an exciting area of conservation that on the educational side offers scholarships and residencies for artists interested in using recycled materials to create art. One of the highlights of our tour was the art museum and studio workshop. Artists display dresses made from orange plastic can holders. Beautiful multimedia collages and sculptures; videos and photography are displayed in the museum. All of these areas and more are being researched and developed by Recology – a company founded in 1920 and now a billion-dollar corporation.

According to a news report on the Recology website, the global handshake involved in collecting, processing, selling and shipping recyclable waste has recently become more of a firm grip. Due to the decline of the US paper mill industry our baled paper has gone to China, where their high-quality recycling processes produce our cereal boxes and other consumer goods.

Historically, China has accepted 4 to 5 percent impurities in bales of recycled materials. Now, China will only accept bales containing less than 1 percent of those impurities. It is a big change that will be challenging to meet.

This change impacts our daily lives. When you toss that pasta sauce bottle into recycle, you better wash it with soap and hot water first. If you’re still at the level of thinking recycling is just a good thing to do, it’s time to wake up. Soon no part of recycling will be optional for private homes or commercial establishments.


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