Palo Alto Weekly

News - June 6, 2014

Palo Alto scraps neighborhood trash experiment

City looks to link trash collection to broader plan for a waste-to-energy plant

by Gennady Sheyner and Sue Dremann

A pilot program to reduce residents' trash and make the sorting of waste simpler in one south Palo Alto neighborhood has concluded, and the results, according to a staff report, were decidedly mixed.

The city last year experimented with trash carts in the Greenmeadow neighborhood, where residents were asked to switch from using black (garbage), blue (recyclables) and green (yard waste) carts to a new system with only blue and green carts.

People placed both recyclable goods and landfill-bound trash in the blue bin, with the garbage bagged separately from the recyclables. The green cart took bagged yard trimmings and bagged food scraps. The black cart was eliminated.

The goals of the experiment, which the City Council's Finance Committee discussed Tuesday, was threefold: to divert more landfill-bound garbage into the compostables bin; to lessen greenhouse gases by reducing the number of trips by trucks picking up and hauling the garbage; and to make the sorting of waste simpler and thereby changing people's behaviors.

Among the program's chief virtues was the fact that the city would, for the first time, collect compostable material like food and soiled paper separately from the rest of the waste stream, thereby reducing the amount shipped to a San Jose landfill.

The pilot appears to have succeeded with the first goal, with the average volume of trash heading to the landfill from Greenmeadow falling from 5.07 tons per week to 4.17 tons.

But the pilot also brought about a few surprising and unwelcome findings.

The city did far less well when it came to reducing the number of truck trips. The collection of blue carts on the pilot route could not be handled in just one trip. Making a second trip to the Charles Street material-recovery facility in San Jose added an extra hour of driving time, the program's summary report stated.

It also took longer to pick up the garbage and recyclables at the curbs. The study noted that before the experiment, only about 60 to 70 percent of households put out their blue carts in a given week, compared with nearly every household during the pilot. Instead of an average of 7 hours and 38 minutes, it took 9 hours and 31 minutes to complete the blue-cart route during the pilot.

As for the green carts, the pilot results suggested there was "virtually no change in the driving times, miles traveled, and fuel consumption for the green cart truck driver. However, this truck was only operated by one driver as opposed to two drivers prior to the pilot."

The third goal, simplifying things for residents, is where things really went sour. Many customers complained during the pilot about the requirement that garbage be bagged separately from recyclables and that food scraps and yard trimmings be similarly separated, the report stated.

Greenmeadow resident Bob Wachs told the Weekly on Wednesday that bagging the yard and food waste was the least pleasant part of the pilot, though he and his wife got used to putting their food scraps in the small household container the city provided.

"I found the little wastebasket kind of a pain. We kept trying to find a place for it. It got to be a bit of a joke. I kept stubbing my foot on it," he said.

The program increased the amount of material the Wachses composted, "but I don't think we became better at creating less garbage," he said.

Resident Lisa Steinback already practiced composting at home prior to the pilot, so she personally found the two-cart system less practical.

"I had a lot of recyclables, and they didn't fit into the blue toter. Adding another garbage bag on top, the cover couldn't close because the bin was overflowing," she said Wednesday.

Resident Penny Ellson said some people had a hard time finding the compostable bags.

"There was a lot of back and forth on the neighborhood email list," she said. Eventually, she discovered them at Costco, where she purchased a large quantity, and she saw them at Piazza's, she said.

According to the pilot report, the issue of bags "brought the ire of all residents." When asked in a midpoint survey to comment on their experiences with bags, 72 percent of 165 respondents provided additional commentary, with more than half having negative comments.

As for changing her behavior when it came to sorting the trash, Ellson said she was initially irritated, but she made a concerted effort and got the hang of it.

"As soon as I did .... I realized, 'Oh, this isn't so bad,'" she said.

Ellson's family of four reduced their landfill-bound trash to a single 13-gallon plastic bag. Before the pilot program, she probably tossed at least twice that much, she said.

In the end, 80 percent of residents who responded to the pilot program's final survey said they were willing to continue the pilot to help the city gather data, the summary notes.

Given the mixed results, the city no longer plans to spread the pilot program to other parts of the city. Instead, Public Works is proposing to gradually roll out new services, starting with the collection of food scraps. According to a report from the department, this could either mean bagging the food scraps separately or mixing them in with yard trimmings so that the two can be composted together.

Ultimately, the city plans to build an anaerobic-digestion plant in the Baylands that would process food scraps and sewage sludge and generate energy. The facility, part of the city's Organics Facility Plan, is still years away from becoming a reality, however.

Still, the new waste-to-energy plant poses a complication for the two-cart program. A report from Public Works noted that mixing residential food and yard trimmings together may prohibitively increase the cost of processing them.

While the Finance Committee didn't vote on the issue Tuesday night, members generally went along with staff's proposal that any reconsideration of trash carts be linked to the Organics Facility Plan. Councilman Marc Berman, who chairs the committee, told the Weekly that the city's thinking about organic waste has shifted in recent years and any citywide proposal to revamp the trash program should be coordinated with the new plan.

"We need to find out what kind of technologies we need to use out there (on the Baylands site) and get a little more details on that," Berman said. "That's going to have a lot of influence on what programs we roll out."

Staff writers Gennady Sheyner and Sue Dremann can be emailed at gsheyner@paweekly.com and sdremann@paweekly.com.

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