Joe Garbarino

Joe Garbarino has been around trash since he was 16 years old, living in San Francisco and working with his dad, an Italian immigrant. “We never considered ourselves garbagemen,” he says of those early years. “We were scavengers.” Garbarino and his bride, Sally, moved to San Rafael in 1955. In 1956, he opened Marin Sanitary Service with seven other partners in downtown San Rafael. In the 1970s, Garbarino relocated the business to an industrial area of town and started Marin Recycling, finally launching Marin Resource Recovery Center’s indoor dump in the 1980s. Throughout the years, the business has stayed in the family: Garbarino’s oldest daughter, Patty, is president of Marin Sanitary; he is the company’s chairman; and three generations of Garbarinos work at Marin Sanitary Service.

The 100-acre site of Marin Sanitary Service, located on Jacoby Drive off Andersen Drive in San Rafael, is also home to Garbarino’s vast Military Vehicle Museum, as well as dozens of pigs, chickens and colorful peacocks — the latter of which roam freely about the facility during the day.

But the business isn’t just large in size; it is now a $30 million a year company with 242 employees and more than 90 trucks, some costing more than $300,000 apiece. The company serves about 30,000 residences and 3,000 businesses, recycling almost 75 percent of what it collects — a statistic that according to Garbarino makes Marin one of the nation’s best counties when it comes to sustainability.

In Marin, trash is collected in three containers — why? It is important to understand this, so let’s make it simple: One container is for recyclable materials — newspapers, cardboard and magazines; glass bottles, metal and aluminum cans and numbered plastic packaging that’s clean with no food in it. Then there’s a bin for garden waste — weeds, tree trimmings and grass clippings — and, on a volunteer basis, this now includes food scraps such as potato peels, chicken bones and spoiled fruit; that kind of stuff. All this material is recycled into compost for farmers. Finally, there’s a bin for garbage. Ideally, this is for empty ice cream, soup, juice and milk cartons, plastic-coated paper and plastic with food on it, dirty plastic utensils and Styrofoam.

Why did you say ideally? Because some people still put food scraps in their garbage. Better it goes into a pail under the sink and then in the bin with garden trimmings. People shouldn’t waste power and water using their garbage disposal. Like I said, food scraps can all be recycled into soil-enriching compost. As more and more people do this, they can downsize from 32-gallon bins to 20-gallon bins for garbage. Garbage is now mostly dirty food containers. And that’s good, because we can’t do anything with the waxy paper and food-soiled plastic containers that we collect as garbage; that all goes straight to the dump. Only if it’s rinsed out can it go into the recycling bin.

What about unwanted items not suitable for curbside pickup? Things like paint, oil, even electronic devices have to be handled separately. Those items go in the Hazardous Waste Disposal Site just before the dump’s entrance — a service that’s free to most Marin residents. [Novato has its own location for hazardous wastes.]

What do you do with the recyclable materials? Once they’re sorted and cleaned, I sell them. One example is beer and wine glass bottles. They’re trucked to the East Bay where they’re melted down and made into new glass bottles of all shapes and sizes and colors, millions of them every year. Glass is 100 percent recyclable and can be recycled repeatedly without losing quality. However, I can’t send plate glass with my glass bottles — that creates imperfections in the new glass bottles. Another recycling example is paper. Once it is sorted and free of contaminates, it’s baled into 1,700-pound cubes and sent on container ships to Taiwan. There it’s blended with water to create a fiber that’s used to make new paper. We do the same with magazines, although they are only 10 percent of the paper we process. Aluminum cans? They’re sorted by a machine, baled into 1,500-pound bales, put in an 18-wheeler and taken to places like Troy, Alabama, where they’re melted down and pressed into sheets of new aluminum. This is pure aluminum, so it’s made into new beer and soda cans.

Other examples? Every day, building contractors drop off about 10 tons of Sheetrock. We sort this out, bundle it up and truck it over to Zamora. There’s a plant there that crushes it up, puts it in a big boiler that separates the paper from the gypsum. Then the paper is dried, fluffed up and sold to veterinarians and animal hospitals that use it in their kennels. The gypsum is sold to farmers; it helps break up their soil. Another example is old carpet; we get lots of that. Again, we sort it, bundle it into bales and give it to recyclers around the Bay Area. They separate the fiber from the backing; the backing is often made into dashboards for cars, and the fiber is used for insulation and different kinds of safety padding.

People think of Marin Sanitary Service as being in the trash business, but you sound like an environmentalist. I am absolutely an environmentalist — and proud of it — but it didn’t start that way. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when we had open trucks, four guys would park under a streetlight and, as three guys hauled the trash in burlap bags and dumped it in the truck, a fourth guy would put paper here, rags there, cardboard over here and tin cans there; you know what I mean? And we would go from streetlight to streetlight until the sun came up. We got the job done, but not very well. Then the recycling movement began and I started working with wonderful people like Gloria Duncan of Fairfax and Ted Wellman, a remarkable conservationist, and I could see the less waste I took to the dump, the less I had to charge customers and the better my business would become. So you could say I started recycling because I didn’t own the dump. But now I am absolutely an environmentalist.

Do the people of Marin respond in kind? Are your customers good environmentalists? You mean do they always put the right waste material in the right bin? For the most part, yes. Sure, there will always be the guy who puts dog poop in a tin can and throws it in the recycling bin — I’ve seen it myself. However, that doesn’t happen very often. Ninety-nine percent of the people we deal with in Marin are great people. To be honest, I can’t see many big problems regarding they way people in Marin recycle. The materials we get in — and ship out — are, most of the time, clean as a whistle.

What should be done with plastic bags and chunks of Styrofoam? First, both should be outlawed, worldwide. Clean Styrofoam in large amounts can be recycled into picture frames, but it’s a difficult process and can only be done once. Most Styrofoam gets soiled — and it is garbage, pure and simple. It should go with the dirty plastics and waxy paper food containers in the garbage bin.

Plastic bags? Again, it is garbage. It gums up all our sorters and causes all sorts of problems. Take plastic bags to Safeway, United Markets or Rite-Aid. People like TREX pick them up there and recycle them into composite lumber. Instead of using plastic bags — or even paper bags — we should all shop with reusable cloth bags.

Plastic bags with dog poop? Personally, I pick up dog poop with a Kleenex and flush it down our john. Short of that, it goes in with the garbage and straight to the dump. It does not go in with garden waste.

Chunks of concrete and unwanted lumber? Both items can go to the dump, either Redwood Landfill north of Novato or here at Marin Resource Recovery Center. We crush the concrete back into gravel and sell it to contractors who use it on roadbeds and as a base for sewer lines. Wood is ground down and turned into mulch; trees are cut up and sold as firewood. Some of these recycled materials we donate to good causes.

Dry cleaner hangers, black plastic nursery pots and Styrofoam “popcorn” packaging? Take ’em back where you got them; they’ll be reused. Take the “popcorn” to your local packaging store; they’ll use it again.

TVs, computers, printers, cell phones, fluorescent lightbulbs, dead batteries, old paint, used brake fluid and old motor oil? All those can go to our Household Hazardous Waste Facility.

For more information visit To arrange a group tour, call Devi Peri at 415.458.5539.

The Details

• Marin Sanitary Service Provides weekly residential and commercial waste collection, street sweeping and recyclables pickup services. 1050 Andersen Drive,
San Rafael, 415.456.2601; open Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 12 noon

• Marin Recycling Center Accepts and processes collected recyclables including glass bottles and jars, aluminum and tin cans, plastic containers No. 1–7, waste papers, cardboard and hazardous waste.  The center also provides community education through the Environmental Classroom. 535 Jacoby Street,
San Rafael, 415.453.1404; open Tuesday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., closed Sundays, Mondays and holidays

• Marin Resource Recovery Center Accepts and processes nonhazardous materials through a customized system of screens, conveyors, blowers, magnets and hand sorting. 565 Jacoby Street,
San Rafael, 415.485.5646; open Monday through Saturday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

• Hazardous Waste Facility Available for free to any Marin County household excluding Novato; bring proof of residency, such as a driver’s license, tax documents or utility bill. 565 Jacoby Street (look for the signs by the indoor dump entrance), 
San Rafael, 415.485.6806; open Tuesday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., closed Sundays and Mondays