Waste not, want not? | July 30, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - July 30, 2010

Waste not, want not?

Trapped by a garbage system that's draining city funds, Palo Alto seeks to overhaul obsolete waste-management model

by Gennady Sheyner

The SMaRT Station in Sunnyvale is a labyrinth of loader trucks, compost piles, stacked cubes of crushed cans and colossal mechanical worms called "trommels" that use their jagged teeth to tear open streams of plastic bags filled with Palo Alto, Mountain View and Sunnyvale trash.

This story contains 2250 words.

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Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com.


Posted by Al Henning, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 30, 2010 at 2:24 pm

Since the advent of recycling, our non-recycling waste stream has dropped so low, that pickup once every 2 or even 4 weeks would be fine. Pickup of recyclables every 2 weeks would probably be OK. Compostible waste (yard waste) varies, but I could probably live with every 2 weeks.

I'd be happy if the City would reduce pickup frequency by half to save operational and fixed costs, if they would rebate at least a fraction of the savings back to me. Since I am already 'over-served' in terms of waste removal, I would be highly dis-pleased to pay more for something for which I already need less.

Posted by bill, a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 30, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Al has a good idea. Pick up recyclables once every 2 or more weeks. However, compostables and garbage do begin to decay and smell in a week or so.

Posted by fine with me, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 30, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Bi-weekly home recycling pickup would be fine with me.

However, the article sounds like the main issue is commercial garbage rates have dropped too much. They need to think of ways to tweak the rates to cover their budget.

Posted by Toady, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 30, 2010 at 3:37 pm


In the real world, any initiative would have incorporated an understanding of how contracts in place would impact overall revenue collections.

Here we are again saddled with the impact of "green at all cost" by do-gooders who don't understand unintended consequences.

And it's going to cost us a lot.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Jul 30, 2010 at 4:21 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

In other words, the people we elected to manage city affairs have played ego games with no idea of the consequences. I believe one of my first letters, to the Palo Alto Times about 40 years ago, was suggestion that Palo Alto surrender its charter and become a municipal service district with clearly defined limits on authority. Giving undefined power to liberals is like giving beer to teenage drivers.

Posted by Kate, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 30, 2010 at 4:45 pm

And where have the department heads been all of this time? This is news? Well, it is to us but should not have been to the 'executives' minding the store - and for how long??. How many scandals and foul ups are going to occur in the Public Works Department before a city manager, ANY city manager cleans house???

Posted by CHinCider, a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 30, 2010 at 6:22 pm

Hey "Kate" -

Why the continued venom against Public Works? Do you even know the facts and background behind those long term contracts the City is now saddled with?

Do you know that they were approved in the late 80's during the era of an entirely different staff, City Manager, Public Works Director, etc? Do you know that then (now deceased) Public Works Director Dave Adams recommended against it, but was overruled by then City Manager Bill Zaner? Do you understand that current City staff inherited that albatross? Do you have a clue that Public Works has been trying to move the issue forward for 10 years or so, but has ben blocked by lack of political will until recently?

I think Emily Renzel may have been on the Council that approved it?

I guess for hateful people like you it's just easier to cast aspersions and be angry even when you don't know wha you're talking about.

Posted by Thank you, a resident of Green Acres
on Jul 30, 2010 at 6:35 pm

My regular trash is very small but my recyclable container is full every week so I'd prefer my recycles picked up weekly and the trash every "fortnight" (in American English "every other week").

Posted by Big Brother is Watching Your Garbage, a resident of Monroe Park
on Jul 31, 2010 at 10:29 am

In the real world, the incremental costs of attaining the zero waste program's goals would be analyzed to see if the benefits obtained were worth their additional costs at the margin. In the world of environmentalism, when we are asked to pay more and more to reach certain goals, and as further draconian goals are then imposed over time simply because it has been decided the goals are social goods there is no such parsing (water conservation = higher prices, less garbage = higher prices, greater recycling = higher prices, etc.). All that is ever asked is how can we keep making the same amount of money as before or even more money, all the while asking for further sacrifice from the public. Sooner or later, the public will tire of this, especially given the fact that many of us have far less money and resources than we used to. We need realistic goals (non-Utopian, that is) that do not punish the public as they are reached. Apparently, this is not possible in the city of Palo Alto, or indeed, much of California.

Posted by Sherry, a resident of South of Midtown
on Jul 31, 2010 at 12:28 pm

Any chance that the City's unused tonnage in our 'put or pay' disposal contracts may be sold at a discount to another city that has lots of garbage and is now paying full boat, maybe even a premium, to dispose of it?

Let's wheel and deal, let's get creative during the 11 years left on those contracts.

Given the community's admirable recycling and conservation efforts, substantial financial benefits should come with new 2021 contracts.

Posted by Buddy, a resident of another community
on Jul 31, 2010 at 5:44 pm

I'm from Gibsons British Columbia and I must say you folks, though facing some challenges, seem to get it. If you are a wasting pig, the tax burden seems quite low. If you are responsible and ethical, there seems to be some formula whereby good behavior is punished. Metro Vancouver British Columbia elected officials decide yesterday to burn garbage in Garbage Burning Factories they want to construct for hundreds of millions of taxpayers dollars. It was a close vote but some officials chose to listen to some quack scientists in Europe, who get paid big money to say Garbage Burning Factories are a good thing. These same quack scientists used to work for the tobacco companies then fast food companies. These snake oil salesmen dressed up as "experts" should come to your community and see how it could be. We only wish we had your wows now. It never ceases to amaze me how so few can sell out their ethics and their morals for their own personal gain and egos for their own benefit while having such a massive negative impact on so many of us. Ya might want to think twice before visiting our region. The air may be tough to breath up here if these short sighted politicians get their way.

Posted by Ruth, a resident of Community Center
on Jul 31, 2010 at 8:26 pm

Can someone explain the business rationale behind "play or pay"? If Palo Alto doesn't haul enough trash to landfill, why is there a penalty charged under the contract negotiated in 1993? Isn't it actually goodness for the landfill to have less trash to process?

Or it is simply a situation where the city simply has to pay a fixed price every year for X amount of garbage, and since we are running under that target, then we need to pay the difference? If this is the case, then the phrase "play or pay" is confusing at best.

Posted by Super, a resident of Community Center
on Aug 2, 2010 at 11:29 am

Your government dollars at work! Simply passing the costs back to PA residents is not the answer - fix the system and rethink this zero waste nonsense.

Posted by reclaim some of the existing dump?, a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 2, 2010 at 11:58 am

A crazy thought, how about transfer some of the existing dump at the baylands to the Morgan Hill land fill to meet the city required garbage volume as per the contract? If the city is going to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for not fully using the land fill they contracted with, why not spend some of the funds the city would have to pay anyways, to reclaim/restore some of the bay lands?

I also like Sherry's idea of selling off the city's unused land fill space.

Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 2, 2010 at 12:35 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

I believe our energy contracts are Take or Pay also. I suspect even the multi million Enron deal was Take or Pay. We have had a run of councilfolk who were all gee whizzing on the taxpayers for their own aggrandizing. We sent them to the store and they never got past the candy counter, ergo, no meat & potatoes.

Posted by Makes sense, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 8, 2010 at 9:17 pm

@reclaim some of the existing dump?

Sending old trash to the Kirby landfill makes sense to me -- not crazy at all. So long as there's no limiting definition of "garbage," I would think getting some trash out of PA would open up some possibilities.

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