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Garbage goes uncollected in LA trash industry turmoil

About 55 percent of Los Angeles city garbage heads to the Chiquita Canyon Landfill in the Santa Clarita Valley. Here, Luis Santana drives a Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation garbage truck April 23, 2015.
Sharon McNary/KPCC
City officials say that if private garbage haulers fail to pick up garbage for commercial clients, the city will send its own truck, like this L.A. City Sanitation truck driven by Luis Santana April 23, 2015.

The run-up to a big makeover in the city of Los Angeles' trash-hauling policy is leaving some customers in the lurch. 

In July, the 144 private companies that currently haul garbage from commercial clients in Los Angeles will be slashed to just seven companies, each awarded an exclusive territory to serve. 

But the transition is not going smoothly for everyone. 

In a few cases, trash from businesses, apartments and condos in the San Fernando Valley went uncollected for days or weeks when one of the city's biggest haulers – one that did not win a lucrative city franchise – saw its drivers hired away by a competitor that did win a franchise.

It wasn't clear exactly how many trash customers have been stranded in the transition from open market to a franchise system, but L.A. Sanitation's Citywide Recycling Division Manager Karen Coka said the 3-1-1 telephone helpline received 128 complaint calls in the past two weeks.

She said businesses whose pickups are delayed or ignored can call 3-1-1 for help. If a private hauler cannot be contracted quickly to remove the garbage, the city will pick it up, Coca said.

Councilman Mitchell Englander cautioned that the number was likely to rise the closer the city gets to the big switchover from a patchwork of hauling companies to the franchise system.

"A lot of these small haulers are just closing their doors, without any notice and leaving their accounts abandoned, nobody to pick up their trash," Englander said.

Last year, the City Council divided Los Angeles into 11 zones and awarded seven companies exclusive franchises for commercial trash pickup in those areas. The seven companies take over trash service citywide on July 1, transitioning customers onto their service through the end of the year.

About 15 percent of the city’s businesses and multi-family dwellings use one of the haulers who are being forced out of the city when the franchise deal begins.  Other businesses that are served by one of the franchise winners will also have to switch venders if a different company was chosen to serve their territory.

The seven franchise holders have been busy in recent months, buying new equipment and arranging to take over customer accounts from other franchisees and the non-franchise companies that will lose their customers.

For example, Athens Services clients in the San Fernando Valley will be switched over to Waste Management, which won the franchise for that area, and Waste Management will transfer its clients in Athens’ new territory to that company.

But while that activity is happening in the background, other companies that did not win franchises are grappling with the need to shut down their services.

One such company is Recology, a Northern California-based company that served some businesses and apartments in the San Fernando Valley.

Recology service was interrupted in late April after 15 of its drivers were hired away to a competitor company that had won a city franchise and was staffing up, said Recology spokesman Eric Potashner.

Recology had begun the process of bidding for a franchise, but withdrew from contention months ago because it would not have been a profitable business for the company to meet the city's requirements for low-emission trucks and improved waste handling buildings, Potashner said.

The company has sold its client accounts to  franchise winner Athens Services. Recology, one of the largest trash haulers in Los Angeles, will halt its garbage collection service but keep its composting business in Kern County, he said. Food waste collected by Los Angeles franchise winning haulers could be disposed of and composted in Kern County, he said.

Waste Management was awarded two of the eleven franchise zones, covering the west and southeast San Fernando Valley, encompassing more than 15,500 commercial customers. The company is investing about $70 million in new equipment and recycling processes including a new trash handling site in Sun Valley, said Dough Corcoran, director for public sector sales.

The number of abandoned customers forced to switch haulers before the July 1 franchise agreement requires the transition seems to be small so far, he said.

The City Council approved the franchise deal last year, expecting several benefits. Some 144 commercial waste haulers who could collect garbage anywhere in the city meant that garbage trucks from competing companies would roll through alleys and city streets several times a day and week.

With a single company assigned to a service area, the thinking was, pickups would be fewer and better coordinated, with less truck pollution. The companies winning the franchises were to pay higher wages, and impose stricter conditions on recycling and waste processing.