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Going too green too fast?

Original post made by Diana Diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger, on Sep 18, 2007

Is Palo Alto suddenly going too green? Maybe. And in its haste this past week to achieve a nearly "Zero Waste" goal for the city by 2021, some council members are not even asking about how much green cash residents will have to fork out to achieve this zero goal.

In its enthusiasm to be environmentally correct, the majority of the City Council approved going forward with a several hundred-page "Zero Waste Operational Plan" presented to them Monday night by Public Works Director Glenn Roberts.

The costs of such a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional plan were hardly mentioned, nor did the majority of council members (Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto, LaDoris Cordell, Jack Morton, Peter Drekmeier and Judy Kleinberg) who voted for going ahead with the entire plan seem to pay attention the cost.

"Staff has asked us to give them the marching orders (toward zero waste planning) and I say go ahead," said Morton.

The prevailing philosophy seemed to be if it's green it's got to be good.

Right now about 63 percent of our trash is saved from landfills through recycling and other means. Not too shabby. And I certainly agree we can and should do a lot more to sensibly cut down on our waste.

But I have always been skeptical of an idealistic "Zero Waste" concept. And, at the very least, I want to know how much it will cost to ban plastic bags and polystyrene food containers, mandate recycling, get the city involved in food waste collection, force the business community to recycle more, sort all our trash, and a host of other efforts.

For one thing, Roberts told the council that the more that is recycled, the costlier it will be. Diverting our waste from the landfill will continue to increase. And refuse disposal rates are going up. By 2011, our garbage rates could go up 17 percent.

Right now, a few specific policies such as banning plastic bags and mandating recycling will have to go to the council.

But what should have happened rather than blanket endorsement of a several hundred-page plan, is a series of step-by-step council discussions and votes on the policies and the costs of implementing those zero waste policies. It's fine to go green, but certainly not before the council exercises its fiduciary responsibilities.



Comments (36)

 +   Like this comment
Posted by R Wray
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 18, 2007 at 6:54 pm

The City Council's quest for zero waste does appear, and probably does, violate the second law of thermodynamics. But "green" to them (and many others in this town) is like a religion. They don't care about reason or cost in their "religious" pursuit. The fact that the concept of zero waste is impossible is appealing to them because it puts no limits on their attempts to control others.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Not so fast
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 18, 2007 at 7:12 pm

Zero waste is a very sexy sounding term for our city council, especially those who focus only on climate change. Forget about the cost or it is feasible--full speed ahead for Palo Alto towards zero waste. Who cares what the citizmes want--let's ban plastic bags immediately.
I think as a start our city council should set an example by no longer going to the bathroom (at least in Palo Alto).


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Dauntel
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 18, 2007 at 7:23 pm

R Wray is right. When faced with a feel-good politically correct proposal like this, the Council knownothings say go ahead, nevermind the cost. Would that the staff present a plan to fix the streets and be met with the same blind enthusiasm by the Council.

Not enough headlines in actually doing the grunt work of running a city I guess.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by natasha
a resident of Meadow Park
on Sep 18, 2007 at 8:33 pm

So will the City utilities department hire inspectors to check our trash to see if we have thrown away recyclable materials and issue citations like a traffic cop?

If we're all going to be green, howsabout the City's subsidizing solar panels like the rest of the civilized world? That would make a HUGE difference (oh but wait, then electrcity usage would go down and the utilities dept would lose money . . . ) Put their money where their mouth is -- don't just make up piecemeal, feelgood laws about plastic bags and stuff.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Mary
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 18, 2007 at 11:07 pm

One of the things that the Zero Waste report wants 'banned' is styrofoam. Isn't that what computers and other electronic items are packed in? For starters, tell that to Apple Computer which has two stores in Palo Alto - and Fry's. Would they pack up and leave? ....with all that sales tax revenue? Breakable items are shipped in styrofoam - and "peanuts". Will this interfere with 'interstate commerce'? Where is our legal department in all of this?

And will the council also ban disposable diapers? They are NOT recyclable. That will really run up the water bill when moms have to revert to to the old ways - and then use the dryer and burn more electricity. Water could be rationed in the future. Maybe the babies must come home from the hospital already toilet trained. Ordinance # -------.

And no more plastic sacks - only biodegradable. Let us hope that the morning papers are properly wrapped during the rainy season.

Is no council going to ask the residents how they feel about this? Or do we have to TELL them. The City Council should tend to business - first things first: the budget, ABAG, the Creek, the crumbling streets, and the rest of the infrastructure.

This city is 'something else again'.



 +   Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2007 at 6:37 am

Sound and fury signifying nothing.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by janet
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 19, 2007 at 9:01 am

Mary,

Computers etc can be packed in the type of recyclable cardboard stuff (but much thicker) that egg cartons are made of. I know this works because I investigated it for a computer company some years ago.

It is probably cheaper for a deli place to get reasonably water resistant cardboard containers than to get styrofoam

Buy reusable canvas bags instead of using plastic bags. Read the paper online (pay if necessary) instead of havng it delivered.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Not so fast
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 19, 2007 at 9:48 am

This is a golden opportunity for the city council to create a "Zero Waste czar"--at a salary of let's say $300,000. this person will be in charge of making sure that people follow the soon to be passed "zero waste" laws. the waste czar will have th power to enter any palo alto home at any time to make sure that residents are following the zero waste laws.
Using plastic bags? Getting the newspaper delivered instead of reading it online? Using styrofoam peanuts for packaging? The waste czar will get you and the penalties will be stiff.
Since the zero waste mandate will be in about 2-3 years and by then Yoriko will be finishing her tenure on the city council, I nominate Yoriko Kishimoto for the position of PA waste czar.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by John. M
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 19, 2007 at 9:51 am

This is just the beginning. Palo Alto and other cities must look for ways to have MINUS ZERO waste. I'm not kidding.

There are new technologies that permit the creation of physical materials that benefit the environment when decomposing.

Also, on a light note, we need to get rid of the wasteful opinions of those who see no benefit to environmental sustainability.

I'm especially amused by R Wray's foray into physics, as if he hasn't seen chicken manure help seed mature into edible food? The Second Law can work in mysterious ways. :) I love it when people apply general rules to situations in ways that are so self-serving, without looking deeper than their own bias. It's always fun to point this out.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by R Wray
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 19, 2007 at 10:19 am

Put a chicken in a box and see how long it can exist growing food from its manure.

Unlike the 2nd law, the concept of "environmental sustainability" is a false generalization.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by pat
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2007 at 10:41 am

Why are we surprised by this? The council never makes decisions based on fiscal analysis. They only care about what will make headlines and photo ops.

Dauntel is right: "Not enough headlines in actually doing the grunt work of running a city."


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Not so fast
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 19, 2007 at 10:46 am

John M-- I agree that we need to be aware of our environment and take steps to encourage recycling and the cutting back of using materials that do not decompose.
I think as a whole, I and most citizens in PA do their part to recycle and cut back on waste.
All that said, my problem with this whole zero waste concept is summed up well by Pat--the decision is not based on any fiscal analysis and citizen input--it is based on what sounds good and will look good in the newspaper.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by John Barton
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Sep 19, 2007 at 11:02 am

Diana Diamond's statements that the council voted on a plan without regard to cost is simply false. Indeed the plan is quite explicit about how costs will be handled and implict in our vote was that we will only implement those items now that have no budgetary impact. Other items will be taken up as appropriate and only after the staff brings back costs and impacts not only of the individual items but of staff time to work on them.

This document is a set of goals and a path to acheive them. Implementation, including discussion of associated costs, comes over time.

If there is any question of this, I quote below form the staff recommendation:

"Direct staff to immediately begin implementing any recommended programs
that will have minor budgetary impact. As for the other programs, direct staff to begin
identifying costs and funding mechanisms, including inclusion of specified programs in
the Request for Proposals for new collection services to be bid in spring 2008.
Implementation of such programs will be reviewed and evaluated based upon their cost
and diversion effectiveness."

Seems to me this is exactly what Ms. Diamond states in her piece: "a series of step-by-step council discussions and votes on the policies and the costs of implementing those zero waste policies."

This kind of willful disregard for the actual actions of the Council to sell newspapers is unfortunate and unbecoming of the Weekly.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Not so fast
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Sep 19, 2007 at 11:07 am

The actions of the city council over the last few years, with willful disregard for the many problems facing the city , is unfortunate and unbecoming the 9 members who serve on the council.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by John. M
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 19, 2007 at 11:10 am

pat, not-so-fast, wray,

Since when is non-recyclable waste a better thing, than not? Please show examples that illustrate this as a *general rule*.

And, since when is the fiscal cost of recycyling waste products more costly than not recycling at all? Please illustrate, as a general rule.

In your analysis:

1) Please include the near- and short-term COSTS of NOT recycling. (Then please contrast that with the BENEFITS of recycling).

2) Please include the BENEFITS of recycling, including the incentives created for materials innovation that lead to zero waste and "cradle-to-cradle disposables ? PLease include in your analysis the opportunity costs of no incentives to create materials innovation that lead to biodegradable or bioconvertable disposables.

Wray, here's a special question - just for you (maybe Ayn Rand can help?).
Since when have chickens engaged in purposeful agriculture, and the husbanding of crops? Before you answer that, please provide evidence showing that chickens exhibit near-term planning behavior sufficient to engage in agriculture.

Like I said, it's always amusing to see specific laws extended to general principals that can only survive in fantasy.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2007 at 11:58 am

Some cities require you to use transparent plastic bags so inspectors can see if inappropriate stuff is being disposed of. Common in all these schemes is that the customer's time is assumed valueless.
Most recycling programs waste energy, with metal recycling usually the only one that returns its cost. It is all eyewash.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Sandy
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 19, 2007 at 12:02 pm

Why do I get the feeling that most of the people against this proposal are of the so-old-could-care-less-about-world-our-grandkids-will-live-in-rather-have-the-cash-now mentality?

I personally would rather live in a city where the council will have the courage to make an effort rather than throw their hands up in the air, or order endless "studies".

Good for them.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2007 at 12:43 pm

There is always two sides to this recycling issue.

We moved here in the middle of the drought and were told then that the conservation way to do things was to use disposable diapers and paper plates because they conserved water.

We used to spend a lot of our time sorting through our recyclables into designated color coded crates, now we just dump them in a huge bin and presumably someone somewhere is paid to sort them.

On tv last night I saw a news item about the rising cost of bread. They blamed the rise on the cost of rising Australian wheat costs and the fact that too many American wheat growers are turning to corn because of the rising need of ethanol. We may be able to reduce our need on oil, but should we try and reduce our need for bread?

When I was young, our milk came in glass bottles which were returned and reused by the dairies. Nowadays our milk has to be picked up at the store and come in plastic gallon containers which are only able to be used once. They don't even have screw on lids so that the containers can be used for spent motor or cooking oil that we try to recycle.

If recycling and re-using were really thought through, then there would be much more sensible ways of doing it. The majority of Palo Altans I know do our bit whichever way we can and by trying to make us do more the city is just asking for pie in the sky.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Patrick
a resident of Southgate
on Sep 19, 2007 at 12:51 pm

I support efforts towards zero waste. I can be done, or at least something appproximating it. However the GREENEST thing that can be done is to support nuclear power for electricity generation. This sinlge effort would overwhelm anything currently being proposed by the PA Council.

One of the founders of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, is on record supporting nuclear power. He is worth reading:

Web Link




 +   Like this comment
Posted by John. M
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 19, 2007 at 12:55 pm

Resident,

Some good comments there.

Ethanol is an attempt made by greedy, already-wealthy corn farmers to plant fuel. These people are lowlife, and should be exposed for the havoc they have cause in corn-growing nations all over the world, including famine.

I like your idea about returnable milk bottles.

About people resorting our recyclables; the current system is cheaper, because there is actually LESS handling of waste.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2007 at 12:58 pm

To the original poster,

Good for you. Trying to re-use something that is of no further use to you and may be of use to someone else, is what zero waste is all about.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 19, 2007 at 1:00 pm

Sorry, wrong thread, but to the one who left a paper shredder out for grabs, it still applies.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by R Wray
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 19, 2007 at 1:29 pm

John M,

Thanks for the Ayn Rand plug. To spell it out, the chickens are an analogy. The PA Council has made the city the box (or coup) and we are the chickens.

By the manner you write (above) about the greedy wealthy, I guess I should give Karl Marx a plug for you.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by R Wray
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 19, 2007 at 1:42 pm

Janet,
I like to buy and read the newspaper. What gives you the right to attempt to force me to stop?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by John. M
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 19, 2007 at 1:54 pm

Wray, I'm wealthy, and I dig capitalism. It just pains me to see people who grok the likes of Ayn Rand take even the general principals of capitalsim to their most extreme, nonsensical limits, but that's what you;ve been doing all along - I don't expect you to change. Just pointing something out that might help you get out of a rut.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by janet
a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 20, 2007 at 10:00 am

R Wray, you can go pee in the bay also, I have the right to say that's environmentally wrong.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 20, 2007 at 10:09 am

Janet

I think you have unsanitary and unenvironmentally mixed up.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by John. M
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 20, 2007 at 10:52 am

Resident, Consider the "tragedy of the commons" (Hardin). Take your logic to its end point.

Unsanitary, by definition, is environmentally unfriendly.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 20, 2007 at 11:55 am

John

Not familiar with what you quote. However, it is the unsanitary that most will object to first not the unenvironmental.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Diana Diamond
Palo Alto Online blogger
on Sep 20, 2007 at 12:55 pm

Diana Diamond is a registered user.

John Barton -

In your blog above, you said that "Diana Diamond's statements that the council voted on a plan without regard to cost is simply false."

I listened to the entire city council meeting, and there was little discussion on what the costs would be -- even the cost of staff time to flesh out some of the recommendations in the several hundred-page report. There was no hint at prioritizing the many recommendations in the report the staff is now being asked to expand upon.

And may I remind you that four of your council members disagreed with the motion to go forward on zero waste.

As Councilmember Bern Beecham said, as quoted in the Weekly:
"Where is my strategic plan on how we spend the people's money, where we get the biggest bang for the buck?" Beecham asked. "I don't think this is it."


And Councilmember Dena Mossar said:
"I don't want to sit here tonight and (say), 'Go out there and ban and require and force and fine,'" Mossar said. "I want my council to have that conversation, whether I'm on it or not, and I want the public involved in that conversation."

A few of the council members said a couple of times during the discussion that they were unclear as to what they were voting on.

Yes, we have to be environmentally conscious in this city, but our council also has to be financially responsible.

Diana


 +   Like this comment
Posted by R Wray
a resident of Palo Verde
on Sep 20, 2007 at 1:06 pm

Janet,
We are not discussing your right of free speech. The context here is government action (which you clearly advocate), i.e., laws which force obedience by force through fines, jail and ultimately death if one resists.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by John. M
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 20, 2007 at 4:05 pm

Diana, what about the BENEFITS of Zero Waste? The cost mantra simply doesn't play without including benefits. Too many of your criticisms, lately, seem intent on focusing only on the part that plays in the press, without providing a balanced cost AND benefit picture. That's unfortunate, and doesn't serve the public well on complex issues.

The language that Mr. Barton quoted seems clear enough, and should carry the program forward from a the good beginning it has already had, with further inputs necessary to scale the program forward in a way that provides real benefit, and positive ROI.

again, the quote:
"As for the other programs, direct staff to begin

identifying costs and funding mechanisms, including inclusion of specified programs in

the Request for Proposals for new collection services to be bid in spring 2008.

Implementation of such programs will be reviewed and evaluated based upon their cost

and diversion effectiveness.""


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 21, 2007 at 12:19 pm

Environmental economics are challenging. We have always struggled to make an economic pitch on environmental stewardship, and showing a black balance sheet is difficult.

In the late 70's when council debated the expenditure for "piloting" a curbside recycling program, and "testing" a municipal composting operation, we had to devise economics that could help the council see that recycling had a "pay back". Still we were forced to get grant funding in order to test the idea. Now the approach proved to be environmentally sound and economically sound as the disposal cost grew. So the sirens call of Ms. Diamond is one that has echoed before, and is a road bump we have to cross to get on with more sustainable and ultimately more economically prudent waste/resource management.

Many of the components of the zero waste plan will make great economic sense. Some might galvanize our businesses, like HP's and Roche's accomplishments as being green businesses have. I am sure their calculation is more sophisticated than Ms. Diamond's, and a more of a long-term play.


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 22, 2007 at 8:35 am

i am confident that with some effort we could disassemble all waste to its components and return those components to whence they came, but to what value?


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Walter's Nemesis
a resident of Southgate
on Sep 22, 2007 at 2:20 pm

[Post removed by Palo Alto Online staff.]


 +   Like this comment
Posted by Walter's Nemesis
a resident of Southgate
on Sep 25, 2007 at 1:45 pm

Walter, then the world would start afresh; just imagine the possibilities!


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