Sort system helps San Jose triple commerical recycling rate

Source: Contact Waste & Recycling News reporter Kerri Jansen at or 313-446-6098.

A revamped recycling system for San Jose, Calif., businesses has tripled the city’s commercial recycling rate.

In its first six months, the city’s new single-hauler system with two-container material sorting prompted a recycling increase from 22% to almost 70% among the 8,000 businesses affected by the change.

After eight years of planning, negotiation and other hurdles, San Jose officials last year inked a 15-year deal with Republic Services Inc. to handle recycling services for the city’s businesses beginning July 2012.

The city’s former system was non-exclusive, meaning businesses could arrange waste and recycling services with any of several city-approved haulers. Without a guaranteed customer base, haulers were typically reluctant to invest in infrastructure to process recyclables, leaving many businesses — especially small ones — without access to recycling services, said Jo Zientek, deputy director of the Environmental Services Department.

“That’s the main reason we went to the exclusive system, so we’d have consistent services for all of the businesses,” said Jeff Anderson, Environmental Services program manager.

The city’s commercial recycling rate was at best around 22%, Zientek said.

Under the new system, businesses are provided a two-container wet/dry sort program. One bin collects “dry” items like plastics, cans and bottles; the other holds organic waste and soiled paper, which is eventually composted by Zero Waste Energy Development, a new company formed by two local haulers. Businesses that produce a lot of a particular material — a restaurant may have an excess of glass bottles, for example — can add an additional bin.

Officials worked with businesses when investigating potential recycling systems and chose the two-sort system in part because businesses reported not having room for many separate bins, Anderson said. Furthermore, wet/dry collection generates a better collection rate than sending all waste and recyclables to a dirty MRF.

“Businesses have been very receptive to it, except for the rate increase. … since it’s only a two-sort system they weren’t required to put in a lot of containers so they were happy to keep the containers they had or just add one more container,” Anderson said.

About 46% of businesses received a rate increase, while 54% paid less after the switchover, Zientek said. With each of 8,000 businesses provided with recycling services, officials reported recycling rates tripling from July through December 2012.

To handle the increased processing demands, Republic Services retrofitted its old material recovery facility in the area with about $50 million in new equipment, Zientek said. With 400,000 tons per year potential capacity, the Newby Island Resource Recovery Park is publicized as the world’s largest recycling facility. Also as part of the contract, the hauler brought in a new fleet of collection vehicles powered by compressed natural gas.

San Jose has one of the best residential diversion rates in the country among large cities, currently at about 60%, according to information from Waste & Recycling News’ 2013 Municipal Recycling Survey. The new single-hauler system is part of the city’s effort to bring commercial diversion in line with its long-term diversion goals, Zientek said.

“We have a 75% diversion rate [goal] by the end of this year, and a zero waste goal by 2022,” Zientek said. “We’re really looking at a combination of technology; some of it’s going to have to be producer responsibility, behavior change to get there.”