Richmond city council votes to allow fines for 'contaminated' recycling

RICHMOND, Calif. (KGO) -- If you live in West Contra Costa County, get ready -- the local garbage company is gearing up to begin auditing recycle carts and ticketing customers again. Local residents say they're already worried about putting anything in the blue bins. 7 on Your Side's Michael Finney investigated.

As we reported in November, the Republic Services garbage company quietly began going door to door in Contra Costa County, inspecting everybody's recycling carts. Some residents were shocked to find blue stickers charging a $26 penalty for putting something wrong in the bin. Republic Services blamed customers for contributing to a growing recycling crisis. The city of Richmond ordered a stop to the penalties -- but now they're coming back.

RELATED: Richmond residents upset about fines for 'contaminated' recycling

Christian Smith of Richmond is still perplexed. "It has a recycle symbol on there, I'm gonna say yes," he said, holding a plastic bottle.

But after carefully sorting his trash week after week, he found a ticket slapped on his recycle cart: "contamination found." He'd have to pay a $26 penalty.

And six months later, he's still not sure what he did wrong. "The fine was so ridiculous I don't trust them anymore," Smith said.

Across town, Michelle and Art Perrin got the same fine. "It kind of makes me mad 'cause we're trying to do everything right and we get a fine," said Michelle Perrin. "With no explanation and no warning. It's wrong."

It turns out Republic Services garbage company was sending auditors all over West Contra Costa County inspecting recycle carts -- and issuing $26 contamination tickets. Complaints blew up online -- many bewildered about what they did wrong.

The city of Richmond told Republic Services it had no authority to issue fines, and ordered it to stop. But now, six months later, the penalties are back.

The city council has voted unanimously to give Republic Services authority to fine customers for improper recycling. And it raised the penalty to almost $28 bucks for each violation.

RELATED: Marin County residents cited for recycling wrong, bins being left behind

Christian Smith voiced the frustration of the residents. "I bet some people will give up altogether and just put everything in the garbage."

Art Perrin agrees. "You're not gonna take a chance, right? I mean there's no appeal for this," he said.

Republic Services did not respond to any of our questions about the penalties and audits which could begin as soon as next month. However, Republic has said the fees are necessary to deal with a growing recycling crisis.

China has stopped buying the U.S.'s recycled materials unless they meet strict new standards of purity. Republic blames some customers for ruining the loads -- showing city council members these flagrant examples: a tricycle in the cart, and bug-infested food.

Folks we talked to say they recycle carefully and still got ticketed. "We don't do any of that," said Michelle Perrin.

Many complain that anyone can throw trash in someone else's bin, that carts are not labeled with addresses, and it's not clear what materials are recyclable anymore.

Richmond Mayor Tom Butt said penalties are the only way to stop contamination. "It's something we have to do," he said. "We don't have any choice. You can try to educate people you can ask people but apparently, that's not working and people do in fact respond to penalties."

Republic Services has made some changes. The citations now will indicate which item was unacceptable. And general manager Shawn Moberg told the City Council some folks were wrongly tagged for minor violations last year and promised that won't happen again. "We're not gonna tag somebody if there's a half a bottle of ketchup or a peanut butter jar. The idea is to look at the individuals who are treating this as a garbage cart," Moberg said.

Other cities are also cracking down on customers as soiled recyclables are now flowing into landfills. Some companies are leaving behind contaminated carts. Others are requiring customers to separate their recyclables to keep them clean. We'll be showing you more options and how you can make a cleaner Bay Area here on ABC7 News.

Take a look at more stories and videos by Michael Finney and 7 On Your Side.

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