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Waste hauler asks household recyclers to consider safety of workers

Workers standing on a blue metal platform above a concrete floor, sorting trash into piles of plastic and miscellaneous garbage.
Workers on the tipping floor, sorting trash from recycling.

But-back recycling is returning soon to Ukiah and Fort Bragg. New containers will hit the curb and new trucks will start making the rounds on July 1, under a new contractor.

June 15, 2022 — With the passage of SB 1383, Californians will be required to reduce organic waste in the landfill by 75% in the next three years. In a few weeks, a new large-scale compost facility will be available to most of Mendocino County, and buy-back recycling will re-open in Fort Bragg and Ukiah.

Most of the county’s non-recyclable, non- compostable trash goes to a landfill in Fairfield. The county and cities have composting contracts with Cold Creek Compost in Potter Valley, which is permitted to process 50,000 tons of material a year.

On July 1, C&S Waste Solutions will take over the solid waste contract for Fort Bragg and Franchise Area 2, from Waste Management. C&S partner Bruce McCracken sketched out the area where residents can expect to see new containers, and new trucks, making the rounds.

“Franchise Area 2 is kind of split in two, an inland portion and a coastal portion,” he explained. “The coastal portion being everything slightly north of Fort Bragg, and then south down to the Navarro river, so down towards Albion, et cetera. The inland portion is the Ukiah Valley: Redwood Valley, Potter Valley, Hopland. So basically the entire Ukiah Valley…I would like to add, though, on the trucks: one thing that the residential customers will see is that we run split-body trucks. So we co-collect. We collect garbage and recycling at the same time. And I know when people first see it, we’re going to get a bunch of phone calls saying, you’re mixing everything! But we’re not. There actually is a wall in between, in the body of the vehicle. It’s one less trip on the streets, so it helps the roads. It makes us more efficient…it makes no sense for us to mix the material, because it costs us money to go to the landfill.”

In 2019, the company won a $3 million grant from the state to build a compost facility at the Ukiah transfer station. Like Cold Creek, it’s permitted to process 50,000 tons a year, though it’s currently able to process half that. The transfer station has been composting yard waste, but the new covered facility will take organic waste like food scraps, as well.

And, after suspending buy-back recycling in 2019, C&S is promising to open beverage container recycling centers in Ukiah and Fort Bragg. McCracken estimates that in about three months, customers will be able to get their California Redemption Value refunds on bottles and cans.

SB 1383 puts the burden of enforcement and education on the contractor, but McCracken says the hammer will come down incrementally. “If we note that there’s prohibited material in the blue can or the green can, we will tag it. Our customer service staff will call the customer. We will send out literature explaining that this is what really goes into the blue or green can. A second time, you’ll get a small fee, which in most cases we will waive. It’s more of a wake-up, to say, hey. We can’t accept this material in these carts. The third time, it’s a little more serious, where there will be a charge levied against you for contamination, and if it continues, we have the ability to take the cart away. But we don’t want to do that. I understand that everybody wants to recycle everything. But it’s just not doable.”

That’s apparent at the old Alex Thomas pear shed in Ukiah, now transformed to a sorting facility where seventeen workers separate trash from recyclables. Plastic bags and plastic wrappers, says McCracken, are the enemy. “We don’t want bags in the recycling, because that’s where we find needles, too,” he said, over the roar of the machinery. “Needles are the biggest threat on the line.”

There are other hazards, too. In the quiet section of the MRF, or Materials Recovery Facility, there is a huge pile of crushed glass. McCracken’s not worried about glass. “Another thing that’s really bad in the blue can are batteries,” he said. “Because it starts fires in MRF’s, and it starts fires in garbage trucks.” He added that batteries need to be taken to Mendo Recycle during hazardous household waste events, or to the facility in Ukiah, which has limited hours of operation. “The amount of fires across the county in garbage trucks and at MRF’s is escalating at an alarming rate, and it’s batteries,” he warned.

On the tipping floor, where workers extract sheets of plastic film from the recyclables, there are room-sized bales of material that are headed for the landfill. Clothes, pillows, foam mattresses and small appliances have all been pulled from the recycling stream. Some items, like hoses, call for extraordinary measures. “These are known as tanglers in the business, because they tangle up in the machinery,” he said, tugging on a length of hose strapped into one of the landfill bales. “So we literally, at the end of the shift, have to send people up there in harnesses, with knives, to cut it out of the machinery. It’s a hard job as it is, and that’s why people doing their part on the front end makes the job a lot easier.”

Once the material makes its way out of Ukiah, there are a few options. McCracken says there are brokers on the West Coast who will take recyclables, but that “nothing goes to China anymore.” It does go to Pacific Rim countries, including South Korea. “There is a push to get more and more in-country facilities that will process this material,” he reported.

On the far side of the crushed glass and the assembly line where McCracken says a couple hundred tons of material is sorted every day, there is an orphan pile of miscellaneous items that he hopes to educate out of the blue bins altogether. “I mean, there’s a lot of stuff here, why would you ever think of putting it in the blue can?” he asked, nudging a brick with his foot. A beat-up old saddle was nestled in beside a chipped red enamel pot. “We see it all,” he confirmed, eyeing the mountain of trash.

A beat-up saddle next to a red enamel pot in a pile of miscellaneous trash.
A beat-up saddle next to a red enamel pot in a pile of miscellaneous trash.