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Residential compostables program planned

Original post made on Oct 30, 2012

Looking to reduce the amount of organic waste that ends up in its residential trash, City of Palo Alto Zero Waste will hold a series of public meetings to discuss options for a pilot compostable-materials-collection program.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Tuesday, October 30, 2012, 9:55 AM

Comments (30)

Posted by Option 2, a resident of Crescent Park
on Oct 30, 2012 at 10:37 am

Option 2 sounds a lot less complicated - less cans to find space for, don't have to manage which cans go out which week depending. Sounds like the current quality, easy service just with one less can to manage.

Plus in the house I don't have to worry about a third bin that I don't have room for. Just keep my current two bag set-up but instead of recycling and non-recycling make one organic and one non-organic.

Option 1 means I need to find space for a third bag in the house (organic, recyclable, non-compostable), train and police the kids which is which. And then try to remember which week is which when I have to figure which can(s) go to the curb or not. It's not the end of the world, but I've got enough on my mind to have to start managing my whole garbage process.

Posted by A Job for Jobs, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 30, 2012 at 10:46 am

Option 2 looks like it was designed by Steve Jobs, economizes on the hardware, simple to manage, easy user interface, puts any potential complexity in the cloud as it were.

Option 1 looks like it was designed by Microsoft, added complexity, maximum hardware/variables, the users burden to manage new dependencies and get right: if this week, then that can, if this piece of refuse, then that bag.

Posted by Cat Liter, a resident of Midtown
on Oct 30, 2012 at 10:57 am

Seriously? Get our of my garbage. I feel for the person that has to sort the blue can. Cat liter, diapers,etc... Yuck

Posted by KP, a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 30, 2012 at 11:00 am

@A Job for Jobs
Only inP A would someone come up with that analogy! Good one!

PS. Option 2 sounds much better.

Posted by KP, a resident of South of Midtown
on Oct 30, 2012 at 11:10 am

BTW, I hope our program is better than Portland's
- they still have to sort the metal, glass, plastic and now food and garbage, and people still take the returnables to the store for the refund - it's way too much trouble. Oh AND the little brown (compostable) can, is only the size of a small bathroom garbage can.

Posted by JL, a resident of University South
on Oct 30, 2012 at 12:09 pm

What I have not seen any mention of is what happens to pet waste under either of the 2 schemes. Having 2 dogs, we put quite a lot of plastic bagged dog waste in to our black mini-bin each week. Putting the bagged waste into the blue bin as not compostible garbage (option 2?) seems very unfriendly to the sorters. Putting the bare poop into the compostibles bin seems to have major public health issues (options 1&2). Waiting more than one week for black bin pickup (option 1) seems to guarantee a lot of stink.

Posted by Allen Podell, a resident of Community Center
on Oct 30, 2012 at 12:13 pm

Presently, we have blue recycling, green trimmings, and black garbage. This would mean that banana peels, apple cores, moldy bread, and rotten potatoes would be classified compostable and green. Not too hard to manage, yet keeps the yukkies and broken glass out of the recycling.
Simple rule for the frazzled: If you don't know, toss it in the garbage.
Although this new regimen requires an additional in-house container for compostables, it would also halve the number of plastic bags needed for the yukkies, as a paper bag could line the new kitchen compostables container.

Posted by Allen Podell, a resident of Community Center
on Oct 30, 2012 at 12:16 pm

So, I choose option 1.

Posted by mj, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Oct 30, 2012 at 12:54 pm

I wish the reporter had asked specifically about dirty diapers, (adults use them too), tampons, cat litter, dog poop, and other smelly items that can't go in the compost/organic waste bin. I would like specific answers from whoever came up with these two options that they took these items into account. These sorts of garbage items need to be picked up once a week.

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 30, 2012 at 1:02 pm

I have rarely put elastic bands in my garbage.

However, my garbage gets full of chicken bones, meat wrappers, fish wrappers, various bodily fluid wrappers, etc. all of which I want collected regularly. I expect I will put them in whichever can is being collected this week.

Is this serious???????

Posted by WFT, a resident of Barron Park
on Oct 30, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Next they're going to hire a director to manage the program.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Oct 30, 2012 at 1:48 pm

>Approximately 44 percent of residential "garbage" is organic material, according to Zero Waste officials. Most of this material can be diverted from landfills and composted to create a useful, marketable soil amendment.

The zero waste fanatics are just following through on their victory to divert 10 acres of parkland to an anaerobic digestion industrial plant in the Baylands. They promise to include human sewage sludge in the mix. There is no proof that such a 'compost' will be marketable.

I have a better idea,I think: Put all of our garbage in one can, collected once per week. Take it to a plasma arc plant, turn it into syngas, then burn the syngas in a gas turbine to create electrcity. Much more bang for the buck, solves most of the problems, and is much less stressful to the average citizen.

Posted by Ducatigirl, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Oct 30, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Option 2, Option 2. Option 2!

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Oct 30, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Read about this family in the print version of Sunset magazine while I was in a waiting room some time ago. I felt then that this family was too good to be true, so I googled it and still feel that they can't possibly be anything other than a family with no other ideal other than creating no waste. It must take a ridiculous amount of time to live like this and for most families is completely unsustainable.

Web Link

The article is about a family who have zero waste and how they manage it.

Posted by far2fast, a resident of Midtown
on Nov 1, 2012 at 10:49 am

While I think it is a great idea to add kitchen organic garbage to the compostables bin, there are lots of things that would still need to go into a trash bin. In addition to the pet poop and tampons and diapers already mentioned, there are also the boxes of tomato puree or broth which are lined with metallic film. Each of these items would need to be deconstructed to separate out the plastic and metallic films. The city should not be dictating what people buy, or be setting trash policies which work only for people who restrict their purchases to compostable or recyclable items.

Posted by j99, a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 1, 2012 at 10:55 am

The system is fine as is. Just another group of nutty people looking for ways to spend money and waste homeowners time. No more GREEN programs, let the greenies go out 10-20 hours per week and use that enery picking up trash on the street.
The Palo Alto City Council is getting as crazy as the Berkeley people.

Posted by Toady, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Nov 1, 2012 at 2:06 pm

How much will be allocated for additional pest control from the increased number of rats munching on composting?

The best green initiative would be to stop printing wasteful inserts that fill our monthly bills. And then fire all of the folks responsible for the crap that goes straight into the blue can.

Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 2, 2012 at 12:11 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

One reason to divert organics from the landfills is because they needlessly take up diminishing landfill capacity (the state is running out of places to dump its trash), and there are mandates set by the state on municipalities to reduce their trash.

But Global Climate Change gives a more important reason to divert organics. Organic material that goes to landfills gets buried by trash, etc. Cut off from oxygen, it decomposes anaerobically, releasing methane gas, which is a Green House Gas (GHG) 72 times more potent than CO2 on a 20-year time frame (Web Link). While landfill operators usually put in place systems to capture that methane and at a minimum flare it (to convert to less damaging CO2), these systems can not be installed on the active face of the landfill. As a result about 80% of the methane is released before the rest can be captured. This is one of the reasons that it is so important to get organics out of our garbage waste stream and do something that is more intelligent, responsible, and valuable.

When the landfill was about to close, causing the city to lose its (green waste) compost operation, many people complained that the city's default plan to ship our compost 53 miles away would be wasteful and unnecessarily emit GHG's. Council commissioned the Compost Blue Ribbon Task Force (on which I served) to consider the problem and recommend solutions. One thing we found was that a huge step (I can't recall for sure but it may have been the biggest single thing the city could do) to reduce our GHG emissions is stop sending organics to the landfill. Even if it is trucked 53 miles to be composted in Gilroy, that is still much less GHG impact than the methane which would otherwise be released by the food in landfills.

Slightly off topic to this article, but still related as the "next step": Once we decide to do something smarter and more responsible with our resources than send them to a landfill, the question then becomes: what is the best thing to do with them instead, and by which criteria do we measure "best"? Criteria could include: cost, GHG emissions, carbon sequestration, energy generation, compost or other products, land use, truck traffic, environmental justice, etc.

The city is currently gathering community and Council input on the criteria and specifications for a Request For Proposals (RFP) to solicit costs and performances from a variety of companies for their solutions of what to do with our organics which include sewage (which is currently incinerated), food scraps, and yard trimmings. Those solutions may include just shipping it all away, or producing local compost, or biochar, and/or generating energy through anaerobic digestion or gasification. (Gasification is a broad category which includes Plasma Arc as advocated by Craig Laughton, and BioChar, which I like because it sequesters carbon and improves soil.)

You can find out more about this RFP and how to give your input at

Posted by Resident, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 2, 2012 at 7:29 am

I have a better idea.

I think we should waste less food. Only buy what you are going to use. Only cook what is going to be eaten. Don't allow food to spoil or rot by forgetting to eat fresh fruit or use leftovers.

If we don't throw food away, we won't have a problem.

But come for our meat and fish wrappers, our chicken bones every week and at the same time take our corn husks and banana peels.

Posted by Compost is King, a resident of Greater Miranda
on Nov 2, 2012 at 10:31 am

Am I reading this correctly -- PA doesn't already collect residential compostables????

I thought every area does.

I have locations in Menlo and San Carlos, we've been doing the green bin for years. Always show up for the compost giveaways too.

for those freaking out -- a good municipal composter 'fries' everything at a really hot temp: grind the bones, fat, animal waste, etc..

Not a fan of sewage sludge, but not because of human waste - that's easily composted safely, rather, all the toxics dumped down drains. Can't kill that ****.

Posted by Kate, a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 2, 2012 at 12:27 pm

1) Get rid of this city manager
2) Throw out this council with the trash
3) City-get-off our backs
4) Stop the resident-harrassment.
This is getting ridiculous - and our utility rates will go up even more.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 2, 2012 at 12:38 pm

>Can't kill that ****.

King, actually you can, if the temperature is high enough, as provided by some gassification methods, like plasma arc. Remaining toxics, like heavy metals get vitrified into slag, with an extremely low leach rate.

Plasma arc actually solves most of the problems, but anaerobic digestion (AD) does not. In fact AD creates addional problems, like spreading the toxics onto our lawns and gardens and farmlands...that is why such compost products, resulting from AD, are being increasingly reject by the organic farming crowd.

Posted by Compost is King, a resident of Greater Miranda
on Nov 2, 2012 at 12:49 pm

Craig: most accept if they don't include sewage sludge, don't they?

My point was that, absent sewage sludge, municipal compost is fine, the high heat kills most everything. Adding in sewage sludge is the great variable, given what folks flush down, and wash down their sinks (toxics like pharmaceuticals, paint, cleaning products, etc...)

Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 2, 2012 at 1:12 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Kate wrote "This is getting ridiculous - and our utility rates will go up even more."

Actually, there is a potential to save the city money by being smarter about how we handle our resources. For instance, we burn $800K worth of natural gas each year to incinerate our sewage, when that same sewage could be generating energy and money to help pay for its processing expenses. The feasibility study found that local energy and compost could cost less than trucking it away. The RFP will give us up-to-date costs for these options (local or remote, this technology or that, etc).

If not for the efforts of the community, Council and Staff, then the ratepayers would be stuck with the current sewage incinerator and the possibility that it be renewed at an astronomical price, and the default plan of shipping food and yard waste 53 miles away, and the ratepayers would never know that there was a more affordable, more environmentally friendly option. Council and staff deserve our thanks, especially, among the incumbents running for re-election, Pat Burt, who was willing from the start to engage in a process to really find out what our options are and what the best solution may be.

Palo Alto Green Energy, the citizens group which brought you 2011's measure E which won by a 2 to 1 margin, endorses Pat Burt (Web Link), Marc Berman (Web Link), and Liz Kniss (Web Link) for Council.

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 2, 2012 at 1:38 pm

>Craig: most accept if they don't include sewage sludge, don't they?

King, I believe you are right about that. However, this entire thing was sold as a solution to the human sewage sludge issue, including replacing the sludge incinerator, currently in use. The question remains: What to do about the human sewage sludge?

The anaerobic digestion crowd has been all over the place on this question. Dry. Wet. Mix. Test the market, etc. We are left with 10 acres of parkland, possibly turned into an industrial a possible huge failure of funds and resources. And yet that sewage sludge remains...unresolved.

Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere, a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 2, 2012 at 2:45 pm

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

Craig, that's like saying your kitchen remodel remains "unresolved" because you're still working with the architect to draw up the plans.

Things take time to plan and get community input, to get quotes from vendors and assess their legitimacy. If we lived in a dictatorship, the Central Committee could just steamroll their pet project through without regard for the wishes of the community, and we'd be done by now. But in Palo Alto people get their say and for the most part I think they are happier to have things take longer in exchange for more dialog and a better project. You happen to like Plasma Arc, a form of gasification, and I doubt gasification would even be under consideration if it hadn't been for this process. An additional benefit of this process is that Council directed Staff to work to retire the sewage incinerator as soon as feasible (as opposed to waiting for its end of life).

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 2, 2012 at 3:02 pm

>Craig, that's like saying your kitchen remodel remains "unresolved" because you're still working with the architect to draw up the plans.

Cedric, Huh? I don't get that analogy. Your group pushed for anaerobic digestion (AD), as solution for the human sewage sludge issue. You and yours already had the solution in hand, until various issues of reality started to hit you in the face. Now, you are starting to wake up to the facts and problems embedded in AD. I admire that you (in particular) are starting to confront the facts and problems. It's a start.

Posted by neighbor, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 3, 2012 at 3:30 pm

We need to have a small trash bin. I will always have some trash, though not the items listed: foil pouches, rubber bands...yes, some of us have pets and have sanitary items and sometimes things break and must be thrown out and cannot be donated. This is life, no matter how careful we are.
I don't mind also having a way to dispose of the wet compostable stuff, but it certainly can smell/rot if not mixed in with other composting materials promptly.I think they need to consider the smell problem, storage problem....

Posted by Craig Laughton, a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 3, 2012 at 4:33 pm

"However, the initiative only provides for the land for this project, and does not direct any future handling of compost."

This is from the Palo Alto Geeen Energy website (FAQ). This is one of the central problems. How does the 'compost', including human sewage sludge, get disposed of? What is the liability for the city of Palo Alto, if we are stuck with this stuff?

Pat Burt, who I generally think is a smart guy, with technical epertise, is strangely silent on this issue. Where do you stand, Pat?

Posted by Alison, a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 3, 2012 at 8:12 pm

The only way I would even try to make this work is if we each get a small container with a lockable (varmint-proof) lid, and they bring us a clean one when they take it away. I am not bringing a plastic bin into my kitchen to wash out a week's worth of rotting stinking food remains. I will go on putting it into plastic bags and discarding it somewhere.

And where do the kleenex, paper towels and other contaminated paper goods go? They clearly aren't recyclable. Hey, maybe we could put in backyard incinerators -- sorry, just flashing back to my childhood.

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