As Community and Government Affairs Manager at Recology, Paul is our go-to for Earth Month. His in-depth interview covers the history of an organization that truly does make San Francisco more beautiful.
My mother and father emigrated from the Tuscany region of Northern Italy to San Francisco where I was born. My father started as a construction worker until a friend convinced him to join him in working as a garbage collector at Sunset Scavenger Company, one of the two companies in San Francisco that would go on to become Recology. Soon after I was born my parents scraped together enough money to put a down payment on a small two bedroom home in the Cow Hollow neighborhood of San Francisco. My two brothers and I were raised there, all three of us in one small bedroom. Today my wife and I live in the Diamond Heights area of San Francisco.
In the mid 70’s after a brief stay in college, I came to work for Sunset Scavenger beginning as a helper on a cardboard recycling route. I enjoyed going to work in the early morning hours and aside from rainy days, being outside. It was hard and dirty but I learned how to work quickly, safely and efficiently. Soon I was finishing my assigned routes before most people were sitting down to eat lunch. For the next 17 years of my career I moved through the operations obtaining my commercial Class B license that allowed me to become a garbage truck driver earning more money. Eventually I was assigned responsibility for my own route and crew and finally after years of studying and working with rates, routing and customer service issues I became a Route Services Auditor. In 1994 I was offered the opportunity to move into management as the Operations Manager for the fledgling curbside recycling department. Over the years I have worked in every facet of the operations as Dispatcher, Company Operations Manager, Customer Service Manager and Unit Business Manager. After a 38 year career in operations, I have moved into a new role and serve as the Regional Government and Community Relations Manager for Recology as well as oversee the San Francisco Customer Service Call Center.
Tell us about Recology’s roots in SF, support for local organizations, and environmental goals.
Recology’s roots go back to the turn of the century when workers, mostly Italian immigrants utilizing horse and cart, collected trash in San Francisco. These hard working immigrants began to work together until finally around 1920 they formalized the cooperative and became the two companies that still exist today, Sunset Scavenger Company and Golden Gate Recycling. Each company was owned by the numerous “partners” that worked the routes. When a partner retired a new route worker would step up, buy the retiree’s share in the company, and become a partner himself, with assigned responsibility for running his own route and crew. Today’s Recology has evolved into an employee owned company, commonly known as an ESOP. A couple other well know large ESOP companies are United Airlines and Avis Car Rental. Recology however is one of a few companies in the United States that are 100% owned, operated and managed by the employee-owners of the Company. Today, it is not just the workers on the routes that own Recology; instead the people answering the phones, the mechanics fixing the trucks, even the employees washing and fixing trash bins so they can be reused enjoy the benefit of employee ownership. In other words everyone that works for Recology is an employee-owner of the Company. This pride of ownership manifests itself in positive ways such as always trying to provide the best customer service experience in the industry. It also means we show our appreciation by giving back to the communities we serve through volunteerism and philanthropy.
Our Company culture has always regarded our fellow employee-owners and the people of the communities we serve as family. Like any family we need to care for each other and ensure we leave behind for future generations an environment not depleted of natural resources, with clean air to breath and water to drink. That is why we don’t just provide recycling and composting because it’s our job; instead we believe in the environmental benefits that result from those programs. When we and our fellow employee-owners go out and volunteer time to clean a park, paint a homeless shelter, or fiscally support organizations doing good work for the environment, like San Francisco Beautiful, we feel we have done our little bit to help the family thrive.
What have been the biggest drivers for change in the way that Recology provides service or its services?
The service Recology provides and the way we provide it has always been driven by what our individual customers and the larger community wants and expects. For example San Francisco recognized the need to keep toxic materials out of the landfill so we developed and implemented one of the first Household Hazardous Waste collection facilities in the U.S. Today you would be hard pressed to find a city without one of these facilities and in fact many cities modeled their programs and facilities after ours. The public wanted less polluting and more efficient vehicles on the road. Recology was the first company, public or private, in the City to convert its entire fleet including light trucks to B20 Bio-Diesel. Today we require every new vehicle we buy to run on compressed or liquefied natural gas, an even less polluting fuel. Getting ready for the future, we are exploring ways to turn trash that would normally go into a landfill into gas under a controlled environment allowing our fleet to run on a sustainable and renewable energy source.
How does your experience in waste management inform your personal philosophy on environmentalism?
From the early days of the horse and cart through to when my father started working on the open bed trucks, one of the workers toiled in the body of the truck where the trash was being dumped. This worker would pick through the trash his co-workers were dumping into the truck separating and saving things like rags, paper, bottles and cans. These materials were then brought back to the yard where other workers would clean and package them to sell for reuse or recycling.
Then in the late 1960’s things began to change. We became a society of disposable, one-use items; Disposable diapers, no-return plastic soda bottles even disposable cigarette lighters that you threw away after they ran out of fuel instead of refilling them. The trash industry changed with those times and the resulting increase in the volume of trash. Gone were the trucks where items could be separated for reuse and recycling and in their place were giant rear-loader trucks that crushed and compressed everything that could be thrown into them to be hauled off to landfill buried and forgotten forever.
Today in 2015 we have come full circle. Thanks to robust recycling and composting programs and an aware public that has embraced and taken ownership of them the amount of trash going to landfill on a daily basis has been dramatically reduced. We are currently testing technologies that in the not to distant future will mean nothing will go to landfill without being processed for its recyclable or compostable content.
Having the benefit of seeing for myself the amount of waste our society generates on a daily basis I instinctively know it can not be sustainable without doing things like recycling and composting. But even more importantly we need to reduce and reuse. We need to demand from our manufacturers that products are packaged using recycled materials and develop end-of-life uses for their products so they don’t end up buried in a landfill. Lastly, and most importantly, we need to reduce the amount of “stuff” we consume.
What are your top 3 tips to help people celebrate the spirit of Earth Day every day?
I have 4 tips, ones I try to live by every day, and they are easy to remember. We call them the 4 R’s listed in order of importance:
Reduce: Americans throw away as much as half the food they buy because it goes bad before they can eat it. Shop more often for less food.
Reuse: Buy items that can be used more then once. Think about repurposing common household items like empty glass jars.
Recycle: The co-mingled blue cart makes it easy. All your paper including junk mail and all containers, glass, metal or plastic can all go in together.
Rot: Use the green bin! All your food scraps including bones and food soiled paper along with any plant or flowers.