Richmond residents upset about fines for 'contaminated' recycling

RICHMOND, Calif. (KGO) -- America is suddenly facing a recycling crisis-- mainly because China set strict new standards for what it will buy. Recyclers say it threatens California's goal for zero waste in our landfills. And now some garbage companies are putting blame on consumers.

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Not long ago we were encouraged to recycle as much as possible. Now we're told, we're putting a lot of the wrong stuff in our recycle carts and turning it into trash.

An East Bay trash hauler is now holding customers accountable-- and some say they're living with the recycle "police!"

Richmond resident Christian Smith is careful about what he throws in the blue bin.

"It has a recycle label so I'm gonna say yes."

Smith he was shocked to find this citation slapped on his cart

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"Yes, I was given a contamination notice from republic services."

It was stern but cryptic, saying the garbage company found "contamination" in the bin and Smith would have to pay "a fee."

"We were at a loss-- I mean we didn't know what we did wrong."

Smith isn't the only one. Michelle and Art Perrin of Richmond didn't even get a notice on their cart-- just a bill in the mail.

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"They sent me a bill for something I don't even know what I did," said Michelle.

The Bill was for $26.60 for "contamination" in "their" recycle bin.

Seven On Your Side learned the Republic Services Garbage Company was sending auditors to inspect customers' recycle bins in west Contra Costa County and it charged customers a fee for putting something "wrong" in their bin.

Art said, "People were, 'the garbage nazis are out.'"

Reactions blew up on the Nextdoor neighborhood website. With people posting things like, "ticketed by the recycling police!" and "I'll just quit using the blue bin at all!"

Sheryl Bomberry said, "Reading Nextdoor you found out the mass confusion it brought on."

Bomberry called 7 on Your Side to investigate.

"If there's anything going on that shouldn't be, you'll find out."

Republic Services put the blame on "China" and its new "national sword" policy. Starting this year China is no longer buying our recycled materials unless they meet tough new standards. Fewer types of plastic and non-recyclables, and less soiled items like greasy pizza boxes.

Republic said customers are putting garbage in their bins and ruining the loads.

Michelle said, "We don't do that."

Customers we talked to said they recycle the right way as they have for decades.

"I'm upset about getting a fee for a vague violation," said Smith.

Republic told us customers can call and get an exact description of what they did wrong, and a one-time fee waiver. We were there when Art and Michelle tried to find out. They found out it was a non-recyclable item, but they couldn't explain what it was.

Christian tried too, "It said cleaning items found-- I don't know what that is. It troubles me that it's so arbitrary, because is it going to happen next week?"

We asked Republic what gives the company authority to issue fines. At first, the company said it's authorized by its contracts with local governments. We dug into those contracts and nowhere does it say republic can charge a fee.

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Richmond Mayor Tom Butt said, "Republic's authority to charge that fee is not explicitly included in their franchise agreement or in any ordinance."

The mayor says the company never notified local governments before issuing citations. His city has now issued a cease and desist letter requesting Republic stop citing customers and to refund the money it collected so far.

The county followed with a similar demand. Republic says it suspended the program but wants the next contract to include the right to levy those fees.

"I don't see anything wrong with it," said Mayor Butt.

Mayor Butt said he's inclined to allow it, but promised public hearings first.

"Republic says people are essentially putting garbage in their recycling bins and we gotta find a way to fix it."

But customers we talked to say there are too many variables. One man said he got hit with a fine while he was on vacation and his bins weren't even out.

Others say anyone can dump trash in someone else's bin, recycle bins are not marked with addresses and most of all, it's unclear what's acceptable in the bins anymore.

Mayor Butt said, "I never wash out my ketchup bottles and I haven't been cited."

Even Mayor Butt didn't realize he's supposed to wash out food containers.

Republic says it gives customers a recycling guide telling us, "Our ultimate goal is to help customers understand what can and cannot be accepted in the recycling carts. The recycling industry has reached a crisis point in this country. Contamination has become rampant and the future of our local recycling programs is in jeopardy."

ABC7 has been investigating the recycling crisis and looking for possible solutions.

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