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Keeping trash out of the dump

A Ratto Group truck collects garbage in the Elsbree Meadows subdivision in Windsor. (Kent Porter / PD FILE)

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Buried in the legal documents transferring responsibility for hauling Petaluma’s garbage from the Ratto Group to a new hauler in the new year is this dirty truth: The Ratto Group is not diverting as much garbage from the landfill as is required in their contract.

According to Public Works Director Dan St. John, the Ratto Group, which operates here as Petaluma Refuse and Recycling, is “slightly” short of the 50 percent minimum recycling rate set forth in the 15-year contract with the city signed in 2013. This means that “slightly” more than 50 percent of the waste Petaluma produces winds up in the landfill, a pathetic outcome for a city that prides itself on environmentalism.

We can do better. As Councilwoman Teresa Barrett aptly pointed out during a recent public meeting on the subject, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, currently recycles at least 60 percent of its garbage, and many other American cities set diversion rates at 60 percent or higher.

In February, San Francisco-based Recology, which is purchasing the Ratto Group, will take over the Petaluma contract, and the city should hold the new firm to at least meeting the minimum diversion rate.

A decade ago, Petaluma’s garbage hauler had no trouble diverting far more trash from the landfill. In 2008 GreenWaste Recovery, which operated here before the Ratto Group, was recycling 60 percent of Petaluma’s waste. Those were the days when recycled products were much more lucrative. But around the beginning of the decade, the bottom fell out of the market for recycled plastic, aluminum and paper products, most of which is shipped back to China, where the original products are manufactured.

At the same time, some residents became more lax in sorting their garbage, which resulted in more of the potentially recycled products getting spoiled by food waste and other non-recyclable material.

The result is that recycling is less profitable than it once was, so companies have less of an incentive to do it. However, trash collecting is still a big business. The franchise agreement that Petaluma just handed over to Recology is expected to be worth $11.5 million annually for the next 10 years.

With the new year comes a new garbage company in Petaluma, and we are hopeful that Recology will do a better job than its predecessor of keeping trash out of the landfill. City officials need to make sure that happens.