Marin Sanitary Looks to Turn Trash into Power as Business Changes Rapidly

The waste business isn’t what it used to be.

If you ask Marin Sanitary Service President and CEO Patty Garbarino however, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“It would seem as though it would be quite simple, the waste management business, but it’s no longer what it was,” Garbarino said.

Her grandfather started hauling burlap sacks of trash up the hills of San Francisco. Her family partnered with other Italian-American families to establish Marin Sanitary Service in 1948.

Today the company encompasses four divisions, which handle waste and recycling from the curb through almost its entire lifecycle. The company’s divisions now include Marin Sanitary Service, the Marin Recycling Center, the Marin Resource Recovery Center and the Marin Household Hazardous Waste Facility.

Garbarino said the changing business model of recycling in California and worldwide means the company has expanded how it generates revenue and serves customers, always with an eye on renewability.

Using technology like generating power from overlooked sources like processing food scraps and wood chips is an opportunity “for us not only to bring waste material back into the manufacturing stream, but also to be able to … reuse in the way of energy while at the same time teaching the public not to waste as much as we do as Americans,” Garbarino said.

Innovation has become key in an industry buffeted by falling prices for key recyclables like cardboard and paper, a trend largely attributable to China’s National Sword policy. In January of last year China declared it would no longer accept mixed paper recycling, which can be anything from newspaper to office paper, as well as certain plastics due to waste contamination.

Companies like Marin Sanitary have had to find ways to keep cash flowing in despite China refusing to take recycled material like office paper which Garbarino said, “Has absolutely no market right now.” She added the company now gets about a tenth of what they were once paid for the materials. “So it’s affected us not only in terms of having a stable market, but also in terms of the cost,” she added.

That has meant raising rates on residential customers for services like curbside pickups. “The ratepayer now supports within the rate an amount that fluctuates each year, depending on the commodity markets,” she said. Garbarino estimated that the most recent rate increase was under 10% for curbside hauling, noting the National Sword program accounted for roughly half of that.


In addition to losing power itself for five days, the recent PG&E outages put a huge strain on Marin Sanitary as residents tossed out thousands of pounds of spoiled food.

“And that was a concern of the health department because a lot of what we do is to protect health and safety via the sanitation issue,” Garbarino said.

She added that to avoid a buildup of gaseous materials in any one landfill, the company trucked waste north to its operation in Windsor in Sonoma County. The power outage also created problems for the company since they could not sort waste and recycling but can legally only have materials on their premises for 24 hours.

Despite these recent calamities, Garbarino said the company continues to invest in renewable sources of energy. “We’re mandated by the California Air Resources Board to reduce our energy footprint each year,” she said, noting the company already has a solar array and is looking into increasing their investment in sun power. Marin Sanitary also uses renewable diesel in its fleet of garbage trucks.

The company is also looking into permitting and building a small plant at its San Rafael facility that would allow it to go “off the grid” by digesting biomass and turning it into clean power. “That would then make us energy independent and not dependent upon these swings that we’ve seen in the paper market, the cardboard plastic markets, and so forth,” Garbarino said.


Looking to the future of the company does not just mean focusing on prices and energy, however. Garbarino said while the current board of the company includes her, her father, and her cousin, “like a lot of other companies we have been bringing in more independence into the board structure and people with other talents.”

She floated the idea of bringing in people with backgrounds in human resources or banking when those needs arise.

Those who know and work for Garbarino say she is particularly adept at building partnerships. She is welcoming but also direct.

But she focuses on constructive criticism according to Kathy Wall, household hazardous waste program manager at Marin Sanitary.

“She will be direct in terms of what she needs and what she wants,” Wall said, adding that Garbarino “will ask you directly what you can do for her.”

Garbarino is also fastidious about congratulating her employees on a job well done, and following up when something does not reach her standards, Wall said.

“If it’s something that she wasn’t happy about she will also tell you,” Wall said, adding those conversations always included guidance on how to improve a result next time or who to reach out to for guidance.”

Wall said the agreement hammered out years ago between Marin Sanitary and the City of San Rafael to operate the household hazardous waste facility is a good example of the kind of results-focused partnerships Garbarino is adept at forging.

In the late 1980s, many drivers were hauling dangerous waste like motor oil, paint and batteries, Wall said, noting some were sustaining injuries from the waste. Because private companies cannot have permits to handle hazardous waste, to have a program to handle the issue Garbarino needed to partner with the local government, Wall said.

After lobbying the Marin County Board of Supervisors and other officials, a local fire marshal offered to obtain the permit if Garbarino was willing to operate the facility. “That’s one of the things that I admire about her,” Wall said. “Those partnerships really make a difference within our community.”

Cynthia Murray is the president and CEO of the North Bay Leadership Council and has known Garbarino for years. She praised her for her efforts in everything from renewable energy to her work on the county school board as well as her other civic engagements.

“She’s a woman in a male-dominate industry,” Murray said. “Being the first woman to do any of those things is always a challenge.”