Two women walk past a blue recycling bin on Sutter Street. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Proposal could force hundreds of businesses — and even City Hall — to hire trash sorters

A recycling proposal that could force hundreds of hotels, apartments, grocers, office buildings and even City Hall to hire trash sorters is up for a key vote Thursday but faces opposition from business owners.

The Small Business Commission took no position last week on the legislation, which applies to the largest waste generators, amid concerns by restaurants and grocers in particular who are not pleased with the prospect of having to hire full time trash sorters for at least two years if audits show they fail to properly sort their trash into the right bins for recycling.

If they don’t hire these trash sorters, also called zero waste facilitators or green janitors, they could be fined up to $1,000 per day.

The City itself would also have to comply.

A new report by the budget analyst released Friday said that the legislation would apply to 15 city-owned and operated facilities, including City Hall, the Main Library and San Francisco General Hospital. Five of these municipal sites wouldn’t currently pass an audit, the report suggests, and The City would need to hire up to two trash sorters per site at a pay rate of $40 an hour, which include both salary and benefits. That means The City could end up spending $832,000 per year.

Introduced by Supervisor Ahsha Safai in June, the legislation is meant to give The City a recycling boost. Safai introduced it after he learned San Francisco would fail to meet its goal of sending zero waste to the landfill by 2020 and that 60 percent of refuse ending up in the landfill could otherwise be recycled if properly sorted by consumers. Mayor London Breed has set a new goal reducing today’s approximately 600,000 tons going to landfill by half, to 300,000 tons by the end of 2030.

The proposal requires trash audits of the largest refuse generators in San Francisco, those with a roll-off compactor service or generate 30 cubic yards or more of uncompacted refuse per week. That’s about 10 percent of the 6,000 commercial accounts with trash hauler Recology, or 548 properties, including 143 office buildings, 132 retailers like malls and restaurants and 128 apartment buildings along with city departments.

If they fail the audit, which would be conducted by the Department of the Environment, they would have to hire full-time refuse sorters for two years. The proposal is backed by Olga Miranda, president of Service Employees International Union Local 87, the labor union representing janitors.

Business owners opposed the measure before the commission, criticizing the hiring requirement.

Pete Sittnick, a managing partner of Embarcadero restaurants Waterbar and Epic Steak, said they do their best to comply with recycling laws to avoid penalties since “we are not in a position as restaurants with margins as thin as they are to just throw trash in and accept additional fees.”

But he expressed concerns if they were to fail an audit. “To have a dedicated person that their sole responsibility is to look over the separation of refuse is a real economic hardship to a restaurant,” Sittnick said.

Chhavi Sahni, a policy manager with the Golden Restaurant Association, a group that advocates for restaurants, identified 17 members impacted by the proposal.

“The restaurant community is facing such a labor crisis right now that we cannot even find people to work,” Sahni said. “It’s honestly just not feasible for so many of our restaurants.”

Michael Janis, general manager of the SF Market, opposed the legislation and said the existing rules and penalties in place are effective but that “perhaps there needs to be more follow up” by The City.

It wasn’t just business owners who were concerned.

Jonathan Jump, vice president of operations for Project Open Hand, a Tenderloin nonprofit that feeds the low income, also advised Safai to consider the impact on nonprofits. “An FTE at AT & T stadium and an FTE at in the Tenderloin at a nonprofit are just not the same thing,” Jump said.

Chair of the Small Business Commission Mark Dwight said, “I’m not convinced we are going at the problem in the right way.”

“This full-time employee requirement is onerous,” Dwight said, adding that “having anyone do one thing in the company is very unusual.”

Jack Macy, senior zero waste coordinator for the Department of the Environment, said they have seen success in about 80 properties that have hired such trash sorters.

“The problem is across all sectors but from our experience, a lot of these large entities do tend to have higher levels of contamination,” Macy said.

He added, “We are working with all generators in the city. This is an opportunity to give a tool that only makes sense for the large generators.”

The Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committees is scheduled to vote Thursday on the proposal. If approved the law would go into effect July 1 and audits occur every three years.

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