Trash, recycling, and compost bins sit on a curb in front of a small flower-covered house.
Waste bins await collection in Oakland. Some are being pulled aside for audits. Credit: Florence Middleton

On a recent Sunday evening, Glenview resident Ben Chandler rolled his waste bins to the curb, readying them for pickup in the morning, as he does each week.

But when he left his house the next day, he found a large note stuck onto his gray recycling bin. 

“Contamination notice,” it said, letting the household know that they’d improperly placed paper towels in the recycling. 

“OK, that’s pretty bizarre,” Chandler remembers thinking. The notice said the trash collectors may decline to service the bins, and warned that other violations in the future could come with a $25 to $50 fine. 

Concerned that his family’s full cans might not get collected that day, Chandler phoned California Waste Solutions (CWS), Oakland’s recycling contractor, and was on hold for over an hour, he said. Ultimately the bins were emptied, but the experience left Chandler and his family feeling confused.

These recycling audits have been occurring throughout Oakland for close to a decade, according to the city, which said CWS chooses to conduct them on its own. But the inconsistency of the audits and the shifting geography mean many residents have never had their bins scrutinized and may not know about the program. 

Rebecca Parnes, recycling program specialist for the city, said the overall goal of CWS’ audits—as well as a separate annual audit the city conducts—is to educate residents about waste disposal and keep contaminants out of recycling and composting facilities.

“Plastic film and plastic bags…are always trash, 100% of the time.”

A recent state law, SB 1383, also requires California cities to conduct annual waste audits—distinct from CWS’ regular program. The first such Oakland audit happened over one week in November 2022, and another is coming this fall.

“Organics like food scraps, yard trimmings, paper, and cardboard make up half of what Californians dump in landfills,” the state says about the law. Composting that waste instead “will have the fastest impact on the climate crisis,” reducing methane emissions.

Oakland had some leeway in deciding what these annual audits would look like. The city made the decision to conduct curbside audits, observing the contents of residential and commercial trash, recycling, and compost bins. Not only does the city evaluate whether inappropriate items have been disposed of in the recycling or compost, but auditors also look at whether there’s organic or recyclable material in the trash bin.

This was a “shift” in the city’s approach and messaging, Parnes said.

“It’s a mental reframing to think of garbage as ‘contaminated’ if there are things that could be composted,” Parnes said. “We haven’t communicated in that way before. But it’s a more holistic review.”

If auditors catch repeated issues, California Waste Solutions could fine improper recyclers. Credit: Florence Middleton

The auditors who hit the streets in November, rummaging in the 2% of waste bins randomly selected for the program, placed what they called an “Oops! tag” that spelled out which items were put in the wrong cans. If the contents were sorted accurately, the owner received a “Good job! tag,” encouraging them to keep up the diligent disposal. 

While Chandler said he feels more education is good, the “contamination notice” he received from the CWS recycling audit felt a bit “punitive,” since his household hadn’t previously been warned this could occur. The notice did come with a list of acceptable recyclable materials, like the city’s November audits.

The city’s goal for its annual audit was “to make sure we left behind education,” Parnes said. “We were really focused on identifying opportunities—what [incorrectly sorted] materials are we seeing commonly?”

The most frequent offender?

“Plastic film and plastic bags,” Parnes said. “We consistently see it in both recycling and compost. Those are always trash, 100% of the time.”

The November audit found that 2% of all recycling bins evaluated had “high contamination,” meaning more than half of the contents were ineligible, while 1% of compost bins were at that level, Parnes said. About 2.5% of recycling bins and 1% of compost bins had “medium contamination, meaning 10 to 50% of their contents were put in the wrong place. Lastly, 6% of recycling bins and 2% of compost bins had “low contamination,” meaning up to 10% of the materials were ineligible. 

Looking at trash bins, 25% of those audited contained items that could have been recycled or composted instead. 

When a resident or business places something like plastic wrap or food scraps in the recycling bin, people and machines at a “material recovery facility” have to sort out each of those and other offending items before recycling can occur. Food and liquid can also leak onto other items in the bin, rendering the whole batch unrecyclable and sending it off to the landfill, so “it’s important that people do their best,” Parnes said.

Parnes said Oakland residents have been recycling and composting for so long that people are mostly doing it right. 

But “obviously, we want 100% perfect,” she said. “There are still opportunities for Oaklanders to improve recycling and composting.”

More information on how to sort is available on the Oakland Recycles website and through StopWaste.

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.