Oakland restaurant owners gathered by its city hall steps to protest a sharp rise in compost fees. Gail Lilian, owner of Liba Falafel and organizer of the protest, speaks. Photo: Seung Y. Lee
Oakland restaurant owners gathered on the steps of Oakland City Hall July 10, 2015 to protest a sharp rise in compost fees. Gail Lilian, owner of Liba Falafel and organizer of the protest, speaks. Photo: Seung Y. Lee

Oakland restaurant owners held a rally on the steps of City Hall last Friday afternoon to protest a recent sharp rise in compost and trash pick-up fees — as high as an additional $11,000 per year — following a new garbage collecting contract signed by the city government.

Members of the Oakland Indie Alliance, a coalition of more than 70 Oakland restaurants voiced their frustrations against the city government for not thoroughly consulting them and for passing a billion-dollar contract which grants Waste Management, a longtime Oakland garbage contractor, a monopoly in the city.

Members of the alliance include Actual Café, Pizzaiolo, Chop Bar, The Cook and Her Farmer, Beauty’s Bagel Shop, Nido, Homestead, Donut Farm, Oliveto, Blue Heron Catering, Home of Chicken and Waffles, A Cote and Caffé Trieste.

Owners brought and left their recycling bins on the steps for city workers to pick up in an act of defiance.

The new waste management contract, which went into effect on July 1, will cost restaurants thousands of dollars annually for Waste Management to collect their compost and trash. Waste Management, a Texas-based corporation that has worked with Oakland for over a century, won the $1 billion compost and trash collecting contract back last September after temporarily losing it to a local company for being “bullies,” according to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

Thirty-five restaurant owners signed a July 2 letter to Oakland mayor Libby Schaaf and Waste Management community relations director David Tucker complaining of the new burden on their businesses and their city. [Read the letter in full.]

“In percentage terms, our cost to process the same amount of compost has increased in many cases by 80% to over 120%, and our landfill rates have increased only slightly less,” the letter reads. “This is a step backwards for Oakland.”

Recycling bins are left by Oakland city hall steps. Photo: Seung Y. Lee
Recycling bins are left by Oakland city hall steps on July 10, 2015 . Photo: Seung Y. Lee

Many of the restaurants used Recology, a San Francisco-based recycling company, before being forced to switch to Waste Management.

Following their first bill after the new contract, some owners are considering dumping compost into trash as there were no financial incentives to continue composting.

“We’re essentially being penalized for composting,” said Josh Levin, owner of Pepple’s Donut Farms. “I don’t have time for this anti-green, anti-business approach by the city government.”

Gail Lillian, owner of Liba Falafel, who organized Friday’s protest, also pointed out that the contract sets compost rates higher than trash rates, “counter to most cities’ rate structures and incentivizing techniques.”

Composting food waste can have environmental and economic benefits as compost can substitute fertilizers and prevent methane pollution in landfills.

Gail Lilian cropped. Photo Christina Diaz
Gail Lilian, owner of Liba Falafel, organized the rally by Oakland restaurateurs to protest compost fee hike. Photo: Christina Diaz

City officials claim the rates have risen because the contract required union labor, new natural-gas trucks and service to all businesses in the city, according to the Contra Costa Times.

A few owners who own multiple businesses in Oakland and in nearby cities like Emeryville and San Francisco complained of paying several times more in Oakland for the same collecting services elsewhere.

Like Oakland, Emeryville also has an exclusive contract with Waste Management, but the former costs a fraction in compost and trash fees, according to Chris Hillyard, owner of Farley’s East.

“In Emeryville, we pay for $77 a month for composting, trash and recycling,” Hillyard said. “In Oakland, we are going to pay $700 a month.”

Most owners were blindsided by the spike, despite consulting with representatives from city government and Waste Management on more than one occasion. Dona Savitsky, whose owns or co-owns Doña Tomas, Flora, Tacubaya and Xolo, said she hosted an informational breakfast on June 10 at Doña Tomas for other owners to ask questions about the new contract.

“It was not clear then the fees were going to go up this much,” she said.

For some of the owners who have already had to adjust their budgeting to factor in Oakland’s new minimum wage, which rose 36% in March, the spike in compost and trash fees is something they feel they simply can’t accept.

“The minimum wage was a tough pill to swallow but we were able to balance it,” said Maria Alderete, owner of Luka’s Taproom and Lounge who saw her fees nearly double. “We can’t raise more prices so that Waste Management gets richer.”

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