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City officials: CalRecycle spokesman undermining local efforts
Organics can artwork
The city of Ceres produced this graphic to help educate the public about the do’s and don’ts of what to place in green organic containers once they are in operation as of Jan. 1, 2022.

Gearing up to meet state dictates requiring a behavioral shift in the way average Californians deal with their garbage has been a headache for administrators in the city of Ceres Public Works Department. But as those city officials prepare for a public hearing at Monday’s City Council meeting to implement those policies, they were simmering over an email from an official with CalRecycle who publicly disputed their understanding of the new laws.

In an effort to reduce what goes to landfills in California, state legislators in Sacramento have passed a host of bills mandating cities to make sweeping changes to how their residents dispose of trash. Those changes include making some businesses like restaurants to recycle organic wastes.

Sydney Fong, a public information officer with CalRecycle, emailed the Ceres Courier on May 10 in response to Courier coverage of a presentation made by Public Works Director Jeremy Damas at the April 26 council meeting. Damas gave a recap of the laws and what it will mean for Ceres residents.

Damas said that Fong’s email – published last week in the Courier – adds confusion to an already confusing set of laws, which may foment protest and undermine the city’s efforts to adopt the changes.

“This guy (Fong) wants to chime in and completely undermine anything and everything we’re trying to do in our efforts,” said Damas. “He didn’t say anything negative or false, it’s just he didn’t help us out in our argument.”

Toni Cordell, a new administrative analyst in the city Public Works Department, was also livid.

“They put this on us to do and then they turn around and make it harder for us to do,” said Cordell. “They made us look like liars.”

Their chief contention is how Fong disputed Ceres’ need for a third garbage container.

At past council meetings, some Ceres residents have publicly bemoaned the forthcoming changes, chiefly the delivery of a third container to each Ceres household. The third can program will begin Jan. 1. Damas explained that Ceres is adding the third waste-wheeler for grass clippings, garden waste, leaves, weeds and small branches due to legislation. Because Ceres’ contracted refuse collector Bertolloti Disposal doesn’t have access to high diversion organic waste processors to sort out materials in any two-can system, the city is adding a third container solely for organics and biodegradable waste. Fong’s assertion that city isn’t being required to a third container grated on Cordell.

“To find a facility that will take everything you have and sort every material out, it’s nearly impossible and I can tell you it’s not cost-effective even if there were one,” said Cordell. “So to suggest we can keep a two-can system you’ll find that that’s not happening at least not in our area.”

Residents in Turlock – where Cordell was employed before coming to Ceres in March – as already have three cans. She predicts  that cities like Modesto with a two-can system won’t be staying that way for long because of the new laws. 

“What we’re trying to do is implement a program to get us in compliance at the most cost-effective method to our ratepayers and ourselves,” said Cordell.

“We chose a three-can system,” said Damas. “This guy comes in and says we don’t have to go to a three-can system so I’m already going to hear ‘why are we doing this?’”

Sacramento hasn’t made it easy for any city official or resident to understand the convoluted and overlapping series of bills. Cordell said one bill alone is 183 pages thick.

While residents see a third can as a curse, the city hopes they see it also see it as a blessing since they’ll have more capacity for their waste. It should also eliminate residents’ unlawful dumping of lawn clippings in the gutter since it can now go in the green organics can and not take up space in the regular household waste can.

More space should also result in fewer cans being set at the curb overfilled with the lids unable to be closed. Bertolloti crews have long been instructed to not pick up overstuffed cans but the company does it anyway to avoid the hassle of a complaint being phoned in and having to return later.

Damas said change typically causes angst among citizens. But each can will be labeled to remind residents what they can and cannot be placed in each can until it becomes routine.

While some waste produced in Stanislaus County goes to the incinerator on the west side, most goes to the Fink Road Landfill.

While state legislation mostly targets organic recycling towards businesses, there is also a component affecting households.

“There is a residential component to it that we have to address which is where the waste audits that CalRecycle is very prescriptive about how we have to do it and you can’t do it behind a desk,” said Cordell. “This is not something we want to do.”

Some citizens also expressed concern over the city performing “audits” of some garbage cans to see if residents are sorting waste properly.  That data is then reported to CalRecycle.

“Now what we do anything about it or not depends on how bad it really gets,” said Damas.

Some residents have urged the city to buck the state mandates but Damas said the state could strong-arm noncompliant cities with fines of $10,000 per day. If those fines aren’t paid the state could punitively withhold state funds.

Both Damas and Cordell say that educating the public is key to making the change as painless as possible. But it’s not going to be an easy task. Damas said that the city will need to straighten out residents about can colors.

Over the years Bertolloti has given residents cans colored black, gray and green cans for garbage. Residents who currently have a green can for garbage will be given a black can to be used for garbage while the green will be for organics only.

“Bertolloti has really grayed this area for us that will be a huge hurdle,” said Damas. “So right now there is a two-can system in place. One is for garbage and one is for recyclables. The yard waste, the lawn clippings (now) are supposed to go in the garbage can. The tree trimmings go into the gutter so Bertolloti does the pick-up. We want all of that in the green can.”

The city will be scaling back its leaf and limb curb pick-up program from a year-round program to only seasonal.

The various laws also put teeth into the enforcement with fines being the last resort for those who continue to violate the new policies.

“If you make it obvious and you have your lid flipped open and you have a bicycle sticking out the top of it, you’re asking for us to do it,” noted Cordell.

Fines for illegal dumping are also crafted in the new ordinance. Damas said it’s difficult to catch those placing waste on the streets but the city works on identifying the culprits.

“We know a lot of times where it’s coming from and it may take a little bit to catch them. A lot of our problems on the streets and roadways are landscapers because they don’t want to go across the river to Gilton to dump it. They don’t want to pay the dump fee.”

The city is working on surveillance cameras to help catch violators. 

With the transition from a two- to three-can system, the city proposing a return to the requirement that residents keep their garbage containers out of public view when not out for pick-up by Bertolotti. 

Damas said he resents how Fong disputed his claim that the city will be required to buy recycled materials (such as compost) at a percentage dictated by CalRecycle in perpetuity to how much organic material is collected in Ceres.

“We’re already doing some of that to some degree by buying recycled paper. We do compost from a couple of facilities for the parks so there’s some in lieu ways of doing that.”