The city is in the midst of revising its Recycling and Composting Ordinance with the goal of significantly reducing the percentage of recyclables that end up in local garbage. On Tuesday night, staff from the Public Works Department said the new ordinance would likely involve an intense effort to educate the public about recycling and a new surcharge for some of the city's most egregious violators of the new policy.
Clay Reigel, the city's Zero Waste supervisor, said the ordinance would not include any punitive measures in its first year, instead focusing exclusively on education. But in the second year, residents and businesses that throw large volumes of paper, plastic and other recyclable goods into their black garbage bins will be hit with warnings, educational materials and, ultimately, fines.
Reigel said the penalties would only apply to the city's worst violators of the recycling policy — those who ignore the warnings and continue to throw away recyclables. They would find that their garbage is no longer collected.
"It's not meant to be heavy-handed," Reigel told a gathering of about 30 residents Tuesday night. "The intent is not to make it punitive for people making an effort to comply.
"It's trying to focus on those who are really egregious and who wouldn't do it any other way."
Public Works staff estimated that about 43 percent of the city's garbage is actually recyclable and 29 percent is compostable. The goal of the ordinance is to dramatically reduce that percentage and to help the city meet its goal of Zero Waste by 2021 (sending no — or minimal — waste to landfills by 2021).
The ordinance revision, which is modeled on similar laws in Seattle, San Francisco and Portland, would take effect in July. In the first year, the city would send residents recycling guides, hold community meetings on recycling and update the city's website to include all the pertinent recycling information.
Meanwhile, the city's garbage collector, GreenWaste, would be peeking in local garbage bins to identify who is throwing away large quantities of recyclable materials. Those who do will find a yellow tag on their garbage can, identifying the problem and providing additional information about recycling.
In the second year, violators would be identified with red tags on their trash cans and given a few weeks to correct the problem. Those who don't shape up will find a surcharge on their bills. If they continue to trash their recyclables, their garbage would no longer be collected, according to the tentative proposal.
The tag system would only apply to those whose garbage consists of more than 10 percent recyclables, Reigel said.
"One banana peel, Coke can or newspaper in the garbage will not trigger anything," Reigel said. "The expectation is that there will not be perfect compliance."
Several residents said Tuesday they were concerned about the new proposal, particularly the punitive measures in the second year. Doug Moran said his garbage bins often include trash that was placed there by construction workers working at a site near his Barron Park house.
Bob Moss, meanwhile, wondered what exactly constitutes an "egregious" violation. A garbage collector could, for example, lift the lid, see a few sheets of paper in the garbage bin and conclude that the resident is flouting the law. But the paper could have food product such as jelly smeared on the other side, which would make it ineligible for recycling.
Reigel said residents who disagree with their notices would have the opportunity to call the city and work things out before any fines are issued.
Rene Eyerly, Palo Alto's solid-waste manager, said the city also plans to unveil new programs in the next year or so to make it easier for residents to reduce their waste. This includes picking up residents' food scraps and other compostable materials — a service the city currently only offers to commercial customers.
"We got a lot of feedback from the community that this is important for a lot of people," Eyerly said. "We're working as quickly as possible to provide that service and considering the most economic way to do so."
The city also plans to start offering residents smaller trash bins in the next few months to encourage less garbage disposal and more recycling, Eyerly said.
But some participants in Tuesday's meeting remained skeptical. One resident asked what problem the city is trying to solve with the new enforcement measure. Another one characterized the city's effort to target non-recyclers as "garbage Gestapo."
Moss also questioned the city's use of the term "zero waste" to describe its ongoing effort to encourage recycling. Even with stringent new regulations, Palo Alto will never be able to eradicate all the garbage and reach "zero waste," he said.
Staff had estimated that about 25 percent of the current garbage consists of items that cannot be recycled or composted — a category the city has characterized as "problem materials." This includes objects that are too soiled or contaminated to go anywhere but the black bins, as well as materials such as Styrofoam, which are too light and bulky to be recycled in a cost-effective manner.
"You will never have zero waste," Moss told staff Tuesday night. "If you talk about minimizing waste instead of zero waste, people will give you more credibility."