December 10, 2016

Oakland in ferment over compost policy

220x220_zero-wasteSoon, likely before the next Yodeler appears, the Oakland City Council will decide on a 10 – 20-year waste-hauling contract, in particular on whether to provide a third bin for compost to all multi-unit buildings. This decision will be an important element in the city’s efforts to limit climate change.

According to StopWaste’s 2008 Waste Characterization Study, around 43 – 53% of the waste from residential units in Alameda County is compostable organic matter. If not managed properly, compostables release a substantial amount of methane into the atmosphere. Methane is a powerful climate-disrupting gas, with 20 times the short-term impact of CO2. Not only is composting one of the most effective ways to control methane release, but it also helps to save on scarce landfill space.

We fear that Oakland’s leadership is wavering on providing a third bin for compost to multifamily units–which represent a growing proportion, now 40%, of Oakland’s residents.

Without a third bin people throw compostables in the trash. This mix of food scraps and rubbish will go to a Multi-Reuse Facility (not yet built) to be separated via screens and then by recycling workers. At best this method produces low-grade contaminated compost with limited uses. Another key contract concern is to improve the wages for Oakland’s recycling workers, who are doing our dirty work (see the article on page 7 about the big raise for Fremont recycling workers). Today most Oakland recyclers do not even make living wages (starting wage is $12.75/hour), and they work under hazardous conditions to sort the trash we throw out. It’s time to be conscious of what we throw away and whom it affects.

Composting in multi-unit buildings can be challenging and will take time and effort to implement. San Francisco set an example by launching a successful citywide third-bin composting program with an intensive educational campaign, empowering residents to be responsible for their waste and environmental footprint. Now, only five years later, San Francisco has participation by hundreds of thousands of residents.

Climate change is the defining issue of our time and permeates every layer of our day-to-day lives. A huge part of moving towards Zero Waste is helping people to become conscious of their waste. In-home composting does this better than having low-paid recycling workers sort our trash for us. Everyone deserves the equal opportunity to take responsibility for their environmental footprint, and this education is essential to our transition towards sustainable city living.

What You Can Do

E-mail your Oakland councilmember (you can find your Council district at, with copies to city administrator Deanna Santana at, Mayor Jean Quan at, and Public Works Agency Director Brooke Levin at

Or write to each of these at:

Oakland City Hall
1 Frank H. Ogawa Plaza
Oakland, CA 94612.

Urge them to make sure that the new Zero Waste contract includes a mandatory third-bin for compostables for all Oakland residents, including multiunit buildings, and fair wages for recycling workers.

When the contract comes to the City Council for approval, we will need you to take action again. To be notified then, sign up for the Sierra Club Bay Chapter’s e-mail updates and alerts at


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