Say you’re a Long Beach resident who generates more compost-friendly material than you can use. Say you’re also the environmentally-conscious sort and believe in closing the ecological loop, meaning that you want as much waste as possible to be recycled for reuse, preferably within Long Beach for both community benefit and so as to minimize the carbon footprint of hauling it farther away.
In that case, Sawyer Fox’s Common Rot might be for you. For $20 to $30 per month, he picks up your high-grade green waste (e.g., uncooked plant material, cardboard and paper towels, nut/egg shells, seed husks, tea bags, coffee grounds/filters) and totes it to the Growing Experience, a Long Beach urban farm, where it gets turned into compost that’s used to grow food locally.
Since August 2019, things have been that simple. But if the City of Long Beach gets involved, complications may arise.
This isn’t because the City thinks Fox is doing a bad thing. “The idea of what he’s doing is good,” says Erin Rowland, manager of the City’s Waste Diversion and Recycling Program. “There’s nothing wrong with what he’s doing […] from a waste-reduction perspective. [… But] we can’t just allow one person to do things differently just because they have a good idea. We don’t move that way in the City.”
As Rowland points out, Common Rot does not have a business license. But it’s not for lack of trying. Despite being registered with the State of California Franchise Tax Board, the City has denied Fox a business license because he does not have a waste-hauling permit¾a permit the City won’t grant because they’ve given out all they’re going to give.
Permitting is an area where this gets a bit convoluted. According to Rowland, although at one time the City issued as many as 30 permits for waste hauling, about ten years ago the City Council reduced the number to 16, all of which are held by the City’s nine contracted waste haulers, some of which control more than one permit by way of having purchased a smaller hauler which already had its own. (For example, City records indicate that EDCO Disposal controls six of the 16 permits.)
All this is part of the City’s “non-exclusive franchise system” for waste hauling, Rowland explains, with contracts (which are awarded via a competitive bid process) covering everything from “details around the trucks they’re using to haul the material [to] what happens if they’re in an accident [to] liability insurance. […] We have a lot of requirements of our private haulers, and they report on it, and they pay the City fees related to that.”
For a small operator, those fees, coupled with the detailed requirements outlined in the 87-page contract (not including addenda), may be prohibitive. In addition to an initial application fee of $10,000, franchisees must pay the City $3,500 per year to service up to 199 customers ($7,500 for 200 or more), plus 10% of their gross (on top of an additional 8% paid to the State of California).
Fox avers that the small scale and narrow range of his operation carting away five-gallon buckets in the back of his pickup for 80 residential customers plus a few restaurants (the latter of which he’s been servicing for free during the COVID-19 pandemic) should put him in an entirely different category.
“At this point I’m not even trying to get a waste-hauling permit through that system, because that’s just not gonna happen,” he says. “[… T]hat’s not really what I see as a path to success for me anyways, because I’m operating on such a different scale than these massive waste companies; and I’m offering a service that is much more community-oriented. I’ve been saying from the get-go that I’m not a waste hauler: I’m diverting organic material, picking up green waste from residents and businesses and bringing it to [a place] that does all the processing to turn it into usable compost. I’m just the courier, the middleman. I’m taking someone’s property, which they’re choosing to give me, and I am bringing it to a farm for use. What I’m doing shouldn’t even fall under the waste-hauling agreement; but that’s kind of the box that the City is shoving me into because they don’t really have any precedent for what I’m doing and how to classify it.”
Rowland acknowledges that Common Rot may be offering a unique service, saying that to her knowledge none of the City’s nine waste haulers is either confining their food-waste collection to the compost-friendly end of the spectrum or diverting it back into Long Beach. But she notes that presently the amount of waste Fox is hauling¾no matter how little¾makes no difference. “We can’t make exceptions for one person,” she says. “[…] If we’re going to make changes, they have to be systematic, they have to be fair, and we have to have a process for people to apply. […] We would have to go through a pretty aggressive process to change some of the [pertinent civil] code to also update and create a franchise agreement. […] That can change for sure but it’s a process to change it, and I think that can be very frustrating for a private industry.”
Kerstin Kansteiner, whose Portfolio Coffeehouse and Berlin Bistro have been Common Rot customers for a year, says that she is not aware of the City’s waste haulers offering any sort of food-specific waste collection, let alone the compost-friendly sort Common Rot carts off. “If the City’s [waste haulers offer] a green bin, then it’s the best-kept secret, because I have no idea about it,” she says. “[…] We don’t even have recycling bins at Portfolio, [… and] it took forever even to get a recycling bin at Berlin and Fingerprints. […] We had to fight for it; it was never offered.”
Kansteiner notes that a few years ago Berlin Bistro was part of a City-sponsored pilot program with compost-friendly material picked up by Conservation Corps, but that after about a year it was terminated without notice.
Ironically, Kansteiner found out about Common Rot while she was going through the process of becoming a certified member of the City’s Green Business Program, which requires qualifying businesses to accumulate a minimum number of points through various “green” practices, such as composting.
“We thought were doing pretty well environmentally, [having] stopped using plastic straws and utensils,” she recalls. “But going through this program, it was like, ‘Oh my God, we are doing nothing.’ It was eye-opening. [So] Sawyer was an ideal part to help make us better.”
Kansteiner, who is also a Common Rot residential customer, says she’s willing to pay the extra monthly expense for the service because it “closes the circle for me. We get our vegetables from Farm Lot 49, then he picks up our waste and [keeps it] in the city. […] He definitely fulfills a need in the city.”
But she’s concerned about Common Rot’s future. “When I was going through the Green Business Program, the City gave me a head’s up that Common Rot may not be permanently in business because they don’t have a [waste-hauling] permit,” she says.
To date, the City of Long Beach has done nothing to interfere with Common Rot’s operations. In early March, Rowland and Fox met to discuss the situation; but with the onset of COVID-19 and then the post-George Floyd civil unrest, the City’s attention and resources were understandably focused elsewhere. Rowland says the City is just now getting to a place where they can resume considering the situation with Common Rot.
When they do, the City is likely to find it has complete discretion as to whether to allow Common Rot to continue operations unmolested. “For the most part the State of California has been very supportive of community composting,” says Sarah Boltwala-Mesina, whose Root to Soil worked to get a microhauling policy passed in San Diego, a model for municipalities taking a hands-off approach to companies like Common Rot. “[…] All the laws that need to change are at the local level.”
In the absence of such change, Boltwala-Mesina says the requirements for being waste-hauling franchisee are simply too onerous for an operation as small as Common Rot.
“To be a franchise hauler you need to meet certain requirements on insurance, the kind of vehicles, [etc.]¾but a community composter like [Common Rot] would never be able to meet those requirements and get certified,” she says. “It would just be too expensive.”
Should the City create a new niche or simply continue to take a hands-off approach? Rowland frankly acknowledges that the City and its nine waste-haulers are unlikely to provide the specific service offered by Common Rot in the foreseeable future, if ever.
“We as a City are not going to start a composting program citywide that just collects fruits and vegetables,” she says. “We can’t even get the public to recycle correctly, and now we’re going to have to ask the public to not compost their meat but compost [only] this [other] type of foodstuff? [… We] have to provide service to 120,000 accounts. What Common Rot is doing is very small scale, and it’s a very different type of program than what we would have to offer [… and] it’s not really scalable. […] I don’t know that our residents would allow us to charge as much as what [Common Rot’s] charging. […] There’s a lot of great things that they’re doing, but […] it’s not like we could take tons of material to the same place where they’re taking their material. […] We’re thinking grand; we’re thinking half a million people, as opposed to a couple hundred customers.”
From an environmental perspective, let’s hope the City of Long Beach can find a way accommodate both.
This article originally appeared in Random Lengths News.
Greggory Moore, an LB Fresh advisory board member, lives in a historical landmark in downtown Long Beach, where he does various things with words, such as area theatre reviews for Random Lengths News. His first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in the 2010s, and he hopes to complete his follow-up sometime before the 2020s get too far along.