An out-of-order recycling machine at a Ralph's grocery store on Jamboree Road in Tustin. City officials and its waste management consultant say there is no need for more of these machines. Some city residents disagree. Credit: Adam Elmahrek

Thursday, April 22, 2010|Did the city of Tustin cut a good deal with its waste management contractor when it gave up a recycling center for free mulch, or did it get sold up the compost heap?

Two-and-a-half years ago Tustin signed a contract with the CR&R Inc., a Stanton-based waste management company. The contract stipulated that the company establish a new recycling center within the city limits.

As the city understood it, it was entitled to a full-service recycling buyback center that included on-site employees. The company never built the buyback center. Nor did it even provide Tustin residents with a self-serve recycling machine, which it claims is all the contract called for.

Instead, the company cut a deal with the city whereby it provides a variety of waste disposal services — including battery and fluorescent bulb disposal — that it wasn’t doing before. And, on two occasions each year, it gives away free mulch to residents.

The contract was officially amended at the council’s April 6 meeting. Both company and city officials say the city got a good deal. To begin with, the officials say, the city already has a couple of recycling centers. And all the services, plus the mulch, are worth about $53,000.

“Chips, mulch, you name it — you’ll never have to pay for it again,” said CR&R Senior Vice President Dean Ruffridge.

But not everyone thinks it was such a great deal. There are often long lines at the centers on weekends, say users, and the unmanned recycling stations often out of order. And an official from Mission Viejo said the services that the company gave up in order to get out of building the recycling center should have been negotiated for in the original contract.

Also, an official from Waste Management Inc., one of CR&R’s competitors, said that the contract clearly calls for a manned recycling center, not just a recycling machine, and that he thinks the company is “reneging” on its offer to the city.

The contract dictates the following: “Contractor shall establish a Buyback Center for redemption of, at a minimum, all CRV containers within the City limits.”

Initially, the city understood “buyback center” to mean a manned operation. But Ruffridge said a reverse vending machine would have satisfied the term as it is used in the contract.

“It was a point of confusion in terms of the wording of the contract,” said Joe Myers, administrator services manager for Tustin’s public works department.

Ruffridge said there were a “couple of people on (city) staff’s side that thought they wanted a manned recycling center.”

“I saw it one way, they may have it saw it another way,” Ruffridge said.

There should be no confusion said David Ross, director of public sector services for Waste Management Inc. Ross said that a buyback center and a reverse vending machine are “two completely different operations.”

“I think they’re reneging on their offer,” Ross said.

CR&R also claimed that in two and half years it could not find a suitable location for the buyback center. But Ross says a buyback center only requires about 500 square feet of space for a couple of bins, a weight scale and a computer.

In the end CR&R decided that the city didn’t need another place to recycle. What the residents really needed is other services like a free mulch giveaway and hazardous waste pick-up, Ruffridge said.

His argument at the council meeting was that the city already had two recycling centers. The benefit residents would receive from these alternative services would be greater, he said.

Councilman Doug Davert said he wanted to make sure the public didn’t get the wrong impression that the city dumped its recycling center for nothing. “We are redirecting this into new recycling efforts and new education efforts and new outreach efforts,” Davert said.

But Councilwoman Deborah Gavello said that the recycling machine at Ralphs hasn’t been working. She also worried that if Ralphs or Albertsons — the two spots in the city where people can recycle their CRV containers in exchange for cash — decided to shut down their machines, that the residents would have no place to recycle.

“There’s definitely a need for people in Tustin to have a place to recycle,” Gavello said.

The problem with the reverse vending machines is they jam up often, and there is nobody to fix the machine, said Frank Bidwell, a Mission Viejo resident who has recycled with both a reverse vending machine and a man-operated buyback center.

“You’re stuck,” Bidwell said. “And you lose all the money for what you put in.”

CR&R has no control over the machines in Tustin other than a financial relationship with their operators, Ruffridge said. But he said that he would give the center operators a call to see if they would address Gavello’s concern about the machines.

Ruffridge also said that state law requires grocery stores with income of over $1 million to have recycling machines.

Denise Matson, senior management analyst for Mission Viejo’s public works department, said she was “surprised” that Tustin didn’t have these additional services, like the free mulch and hazardous waste pick-up, already negotiated into the contract. Mission Viejo’s contract with Waste Management is nearly up and will have to be renegotiated soon.

“Now I know what to watch out for,” Matson said.

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