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Adopting a Mandatory Commercial Recycling Ordinance:
The Experience of the City of San Carlos

Case Story

Climate Action Connection: Commercial Recycling

Community: City of San Carlos (San Mateo County)

Population: 28,400


In April 2010, the City of San Carlos adopted a mandatory commercial recycling ordinance that requires businesses and apartment complexes with five or more units that generate two cubic yards or more of trash a week to recycle. The ordinance will be phased in over two years and includes all types of recyclable materials, special events, food waste and green waste. It was adopted after extensive consultation with the business community (which supported the ordinance) and includes an extensive outreach program to educate businesses. The effective date of the ordinance was January 2011. San Carlos is still compiling information about quantities of recyclable materials collected, trash disposed as a result of the ordinance, and savings to businesses.

Program Highlights

  • After extensive consultation with the business community, San Carlos adopted a mandatory commercial recycling ordinance in early 2010. The ordinance covers all businesses that produce two or more cubic yards of trash a week (and multi-family communities of five or more units).
  • Businesses in San Carlos were very supportive of the city’s efforts to move from a voluntary to a mandatory recycling program. Many businesses were motivated to support the ordinance because it was a locally designed program as opposed to a potential statewide mandate.
  • In San Carlos, the cost to recycle is free; the cost for waste collection and disposal is based upon the size of the container.
  • The city’s exclusive solid waste service provider (Recology) and regional solid waste joint powers authority (Rethink Waste) provide the majority of outreach and education activities to reach businesses, including waste assessments and recommendations, community workshops and events, program branding (“Biz Smart”) and informational videos.
  • The ordinance’s start date (July 1, 2010) and voluntary phase coincided with a “Commercial Marketing Blitz” education and outreach program proposed by the new solid waste provider. This provided additional resources and support to launch the new ordinance.
  • The ordinance includes a three-step enforcement and compliance process beginning with a courtesy letter and increasing to fines for repeated non-compliance.

Lessons Learned

  • Involving key stakeholders is critical. Take time to talk to businesses early in the process and let the business community help shape the ordinance from the beginning.
  • You might be surprised at the feedback you get; in San Carlos, the feedback was not what was expected. Businesses wanted broader coverage – that is, more businesses and material types included – and faster implementation.
  • Work with the haulers and other partners to identify key stakeholders and develop a comprehensive outreach plan during the development and implementation stages.
  • Much of what is needed to make the program work can be addressed through hauler agreements. Most key issues related to the role of the haulers can be addressed through language in the hauler’s franchise with the city. Be sure to review contract, permit or franchise language carefully so that it and the ordinance are consistent.
  • Many key issues related to the role of haulers and material types included in the program can be addressed through language in the hauler’s franchise with the city.
  • Each city or county should decide what it needs to do to comply with state law or local needs and decide what type of strategy is best for them – such as whether a mandatory ordinance is necessary or not.
  • In the long run, it is worth spending time to educate the business community before formally beginning the program.
  • Businesses that may not value “green” or climate change messages as reasons to participate in the program will understand the value of cost savings potential and improvements to their company bottom line as a reason to join the program and recycle.

Resources to Learn More

The Rest of the Story…

In April 2010, after more than a year of development, the City of San Carlos adopted a mandatory commercial recycling ordinance. All businesses (and apartment complexes with five or more units) that generate two cubic yards or more of trash a week must recycle. Before adoption of the ordinance, recycling by businesses in San Carlos was voluntary. The ordinance covers all material types and includes special events. The city’s solid waste and recycling franchise agreement specifies that recycling is free in San Carlos and waste collection costs are based upon the size of the container.

San Carlos uses an exclusive franchise system for both residential and commercial solid waste and recycling services. The city awards the franchise, which is then managed through a Joint Powers Authority (the South Bayside Waste Management Authority). The city’s adoption of the new commercial recycling ordinance coincided with the selection of a new exclusive hauler (Recology) to provide solid waste and recycling collection services to residents and businesses. The July 1, 2010 effective date of the ordinance and the start of the voluntary phase of the ordinance matched the rollout of an education and outreach effort called a “Marketing Blitz” to the commercial sector in San Carlos by the new hauler. This enabled the city to maximize the value and effectiveness of the new ordinance, and provided additional resources and support to launch the new ordinance.

While developing the ordinance, San Carlos looked at what other cities were doing and reviewed the ordinances of several cities of similar size.

San Carlos is phasing-in its commercial recycling ordinance over a two year period.

  • Between July 1, 2010 and December 31, 2010, the city and its hauler undertook an extensive education and outreach program to provide information about the ordinance to the business community. Participation by businesses was voluntary.
  • Beginning January 2011, all covered businesses are required to source separate recyclable materials, except for organic materials.
  • Beginning January 2012, restaurants, food service businesses, and special events will be required to separate out organic materials.

Stakeholder Involvement in Development Phase Critical to Success

In the first phase of the ordinance development, San Carlos conducted extensive outreach to the business community. This occurred during the year prior to the ordinance’s adoption. The outreach focused on educating the business community about the need for the ordinance, including letting the business community know about the concepts being considered. At the same time, the city gathered input from businesses and key stakeholders on what should be included in the ordinance. Outreach involved such groups as the Chamber of Commerce and service organizations, as well as one-on-one meetings with key businesses, and a survey of businesses in San Carlos. About 350 of the city’s 2,000 businesses were contacted. The second phase of the outreach focused on gathering input about what might be included in the ordinance itself, based upon themes identified during the first phase.

Based upon the outreach conducted, San Carlos learned the following about how businesses viewed the concept of a mandatory commercial recycling ordinance.

  • Businesses were generally very supportive of moving ahead with an ordinance. Many businesses already were recycling voluntarily.
  • Businesses preferred emphasizing education rather than enforcement.
  • Businesses responded well to receiving basic information about what might be included in the ordinance, as a way of responding to misinformation or misunderstandings.
  • Businesses preferred that the mandatory recycling program begin sooner rather than later and be phased-in over a faster time frame than initially proposed by the city.
  • Businesses appreciated the ability to be involved early in the development of the ordinance.
  • Many businesses were motivated to support the ordinance by being able to have a locally developed program, as opposed to having to comply with a state mandate.
  • Many San Carlos businesses already embraced “green” values. San Carlos has the largest number of businesses (30) that have been certified by the Association of Bay Area Governments’ Green Business program in San Mateo County. (

Educating Businesses to Recycle

San Carlos’s business recycling program relies heavily upon educating businesses. Because recycling is free, while the cost of collection and disposal of waste is based upon the size of the collection bin, businesses can save money by recycling more and disposing less.

The city’s new hauler will contact every business and multi-family community to provide waste assessments and recommendations to reduce waste and increase recycling. Specific outreach and education activities include a recycling media “blitz”, community workshops and events, program branding (“Biz Smart”), and informational videos. (See examples of San Carlos’s educational activities under “Resources to Learn More”.

City and ReThink Waste (South Bayside Waste Management Authority) staff, along with consultants, work with the hauler to provide outreach and technical assistance. This includes identifying firms that need education and assistance to increase their participation in recycling programs and businesses that are litter or trash “hot spots” where increased pickup and recycling will improve the appearance of a business/store front and the community.

Role of the Hauler

As indicated previously, San Carlos’s exclusive solid waste and recycling services provider will contact each business to offer waste assessments and recommendations. In addition, the hauler provides monthly and quarterly information about recycling tonnages collected consistent with provisions in the franchise agreement between the city and hauler. The hauler also plays a role in the enforcement and compliance system (see below).

Enforcement and Compliance System

San Carlos recycling ordinances uses a three-step enforcement process to promote compliance.

Step 1: Courtesy notice. (First violation) A written notice is attached to the garbage bin if recyclable materials are mixed with trash. Before or at the same time the hauler prepares the written courtesy notice, the hauler’s representative may talk with the customer to educate him or her about recycling requirements and options.

Step 2: Warning letter. (Second violation) The city sends a notice to the customer to inform him or her that they are out of compliance and could be fined.

Step 3: Fines. (Third and subsequent violations) The city fines repeat offenders on a graduated scale ($100 for the first offense; $250 for the second; $500 for the third).

The hauler provides quarterly reports to the city about enforcement actions, as per the franchise agreement.

Cost to City

City costs to date include staff time to develop the ordinance, including education and outreach activities. To minimize additional costs, the city is using existing staff to monitor the program. The city envisions using its Code Enforcement program for enforcement if and when that becomes necessary.

Results So Far

  • Since the mandatory phase of the program began in January 2011, San Carlos is gathering preliminary information about quantities of recyclables collected and reductions in solid waste disposed, as well as cost savings to businesses.
  • Because of the extensive pre-ordinance outreach activities, the education message associated with the program has resonated with businesses. Businesses clearly understand the recycling requirements, why the city adopted the ordinance and the potential cost benefits to businesses.
  • While the ordinance is still in the honeymoon phase, the reaction from the business community so far is positive. Where there have been concerns about business compliance that does not meet the requirements of the ordinance, the hauler works with the individual business to explain the program and promote compliance. As a result, no enforcement actions have been taken since the program became mandatory.
  • The city has set up a system to respond to “hot spots” of problems, either from business complaints, litter accumulation or other issues. The goal is to respond quickly before a small problem turns into a larger one.

Compiled May 2011

This story was prepared in partnership with the California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle).


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