Changing Planet

Fresno: A City Serious About Recycling

Pop quiz. If I asked you to name some of the country’s most innovative cities, where would you rank Fresno, California? It’s a small community 200 miles north of Los Angeles, mostly known for its agriculture.

Yet among cities with more than 100,000 people, Fresno is among the nation’s leaders in recycling. While many cities recycle 30 to 50 percent of their waste, Fresno diverts a whopping 73 percent of its trash from the landfill. That translates to more reusable material, more compost and, ultimately, a healthier city.

Patrick Wiemiller, Fresno’s public utilities director, showed me how the city does it. By partnering with a few innovative recycling companies, the city can have its trucks collect more and more waste. They run it through large sorting machines on their way to be repurposed into tomorrow’s paper, soda cans, or gasoline.

Fresno's Sunset Waste Systems works in high gear around the clock to keep up with the supply of recyclables.

“We do a lot of education and outreach,” Wiemiller told me as we drove across town. “To really get people to recycle you have to change a family’s behavior. We find the most effective way is through children in the schools.”

The city’s Public Utilities department focuses  on lots of time with students, convincing them to persuade their parents to participate. City officials talk up the 73 percent number, but their goal is even higher. Wiemiller says 90 percent is an attainable goal. And one day, the city’s government has ambitions for 100 percent zero-waste.

With such large volume, recycling is an issue of proportion. John Mohoff of Sunset Waste Systems took me through his processing facility, a sprawling warehouse of conveyor belts that sort plastics, metals, and papers and prepares them to be crushed into giant cubes. “When we started, it was just paper, aluminum, tin, and glass,” Mohoff said. “Now we can do all kinds of plastics. And film too.” In total, that translates to nearly 7,000 tons of things that Fresnans throw out each month that ends up being repurposed.

Why does a community like Fresno care so deeply about recycling?

Over at West Coast Waste, the city’s processor of so-called green waste like yard clippings and organic leftovers, owner Dennis Balakian explained that aside from being good stewards of the planet, it’s all about agriculture. A landfill produces little value for farmland. But putting nutritious material back into soils improves crops and livestock—and ultimately, the strawberries, pistachios, or garlic that the rest of the country gets from this region.

  • anon anon

    Fresno is not “a small community”‘; it is the 5th largest city in California and the 34th largest city in the United States.

  • Anna

    But how much pollution is emitted from these facilities?? Does it counteract the benefit of a large number of materials recycled?

  • Jefferson

    I’m sure those numbers are nowhere near correct. Then again, since all of the trash is in the gutters and the thousands of homeless are collecting the recyclables, it might be pretty close.

  • Symply Carma

    Fresno may be one of the best in the nation when it comes to recycling but in March the City will outsource its wonderful trash program leaving over 100 people without a job.

  • bizzebee

    Its too bad that the Mayor of Fresno is going to throw all this good recognition away all because she is trying to fill her pockets with money for future political campaigns. I find it funny that Patrick Wiemiller says that “one day, the city’s government has ambitions for 100 percent zero-waste,” when he knows because of privatization, it will never happen. The so called people who are supposed to take care of our city are throwing away a pair of shoes that arent broke or worn out. They are simply doing it out of greed.

  • Mrtnka

    Thank you anon anon for the clarification. Yes, Fresno is very large. People just don’t know it because it looks so small on a map. That’s because it’s metropolitan area is so much smaller than others (SF, LA, Sacramento, etc). Fresno is larger than Sacramento but no one knows that (including myself until I moved to Fresno).

  • Dan Stone

    I’ve been hearing lots of comments about Fresno’s size, and let me clarify the record! Small is of course relative. Fresno may be smaller than big metropolises like San Francisco and LA, but it’s still has 500,000 fierce Fresnans. It’s environmental and ag efforts, however, are anything but small.

  • Stephen A. Montgomery

    You define Fresno as small? I suppose compared to Tokyo, Los Angeles, Rio or Paris it is but despite the size of mega cities around the world it’s hard for me to picture a city with a population of over a half a mil as “small.”

  • Fresno Recycler

    I am a Fresno resident and very proud to have have earned placement at the top of this very prestigious list. With the help of our local recycling program, residents in this very diverse city seem to get it. Recycling is important to our environment and our world.

  • Kiel

    There was a contentious battle last week over privatizing trash collection. Privatization was passed so the franchise fee could be used to fill budget gaps. It passed 4 to 3.

    Now the city will have far less control of policy and practices of the private trash hauler. I’m left questioning how privatization will effect Fresno’s strong 73% diversion from landfills.

  • Dan Stone Is Gay

    I guess that loser Dan Stone likes deleting comments having to do with the fact that a) these numbers are false and b) Fresno is a big trash dump and the only reason so much is recycled is because of the thousands of homeless. Funny how he says that Fresno is “ultimately, a healthier city”. Maybe there’s so much recycling because Fresnans only drink beer and soda (due to the out of control obesity and alcoholism in Fresno). Why not do a story on how much pollution recycling produces?

  • Jesse Gonzalez

    Unfortunately this story will be irrelevant in six months. The mayor. Ashley Swearengin, is selling off the award winning recylcing program. It was a crowning achievementfor our community that will be lost to privatization.

  • guapo

    ur lookin at it all wrong. we care so much about recycling cus we get paid a nickel or so each can. that adds up to another 30-pack of bud light if you recycle enough of them! orale!!!

  • Citizen Fresno

    What is ironic, and extremely sad, here is that Fresno’s Mayor, Ashley Swearingen, is in the process of selling off this award-winning division, and all of it’s equipment, and firing all of the employees that drive the trucks, deliver the refuse, and educate the public, to private for-profit companies in the next few months. So don’t expect this community to lead in any capacity much longer.

  • Lance Quinto

    This is a very,very good news for all of us!!! This recycling can make improvements in our future not just about by eliminating wastes in our environment but also it will lessen the effects of global warming. So I hope that not only California that are serious about recycling but also other nations in a collective bargaining agreement like the Philippines to sustainably cooperate with one another towards the success of each and everyone of us.

  • Cheryl Leach

    Great to know that we have a city which is so concerned about recycling. I wish all cities will be like that to be able to preserve our environment well and save a lot of resources as well as revenues.

  • Mic

    I like how people are commenting that recycling causes pollution… Do you realize that they are reusing materials for reproduction in new items? This means that there will be less natural resources drawn out for these products. And do you think that creating new items doesn’t cause pollution? Would you rather a factory use create the same amount of pollution to make items using non recycled material or would you like a factory to create the same amount of pollution using recycled material. DUH

  • John

    “To really get people to recycle you have to change a family’s behavior. We find the most effective way is through children in the schools.”

    That’s creepy. Sounds like what Mao did.

  • Casey

    Dan, can you clarify if this is just the what gets put in the recycling bins? After living in SF, I return home and am always surprised by the lack of compost and recycling bins at coffee shops, etc. Do you know if all that waste is being sorted later on down the line as opposed to in-store?


    PS- Thank you for the positive coverage!

  • jane

    i need buy recycle us peper #8 can you help? thanks

  • Jay

    I’m a Fresno resident and I have a little update on this thread. The mayor was successfully privatized the trash hauling of businesses. However, after a citywide vote the citizens had a narrow victory and avoided privatization of residential trash hauling.

    To some people throwing insults: No, it’s not all beer and soda cans. It’s about the empty milk cartons, food containers, cardboard, etc. that the citizens don’t get paid for. Fresno is able to recycle more than other cities. For example, the city takes ALL plastics, including plastic bags. Many other cities can only accept plastic types 1,2, or 3.

    It’s not about the vagrants pushing carts, it’s about the team effort of the citizens of Fresno. Surprisingly, we actually care about the environment.

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