Zero waste plan accepted by PA City Council

Potential payment of prevailing wages will receive further study

Tossing that old thingamajig in the trash became even less acceptable in Palo Alto Monday, as the City Council voted 5-4 to keep the city on course to generating nearly no waste by 2021 -- despite a looming increase in refuse-disposal rates.

Council members John Barton, Bern Beecham, Jack Morton and Dena Mossar voted against the plan.

By 2011, it will cost about $203 per ton to "divert" waste from the landfill, according to city figures. Refuse rates could rise about 17 percent.

The council effectively approved a several hundred page "Zero Waste Operational Plan" Monday, which outlines the goals and general approach the city will take to slash the amount of stuff it sends to a landfill.

Specific policies, such as potentially mandating recycling or banning plastic bags, would need to return to the council for a vote.

Beecham cited the need for a strategic or overall plan to compare cost-effectiveness of additional landfill diversion against other approaches. He said the $200 spent to divert just one ton of landfill could be used to divert 10 to 40 tons of carbon dioxide from going into the atmosphere, for instance.

"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."

The city currently prevents, through recycling or other means, about 63 percent of its waste from reaching the landfill, Public Works Director Glenn Roberts said. Beyond a point, reusing or recycling each additional ton of waste becomes more expensive, he noted.

Councilman John Barton said the costs don't include money saved in the future by preserving the local and global environment.

"It's cost effective to pay more now to minimize those future costs," Roberts said.

For the rest of the council, the plan can't take effect soon enough.

"I don't get passionate about much, but this sis really something we need to go forward with. Staff has asked us to give them marching orders and I say go forward," Councilman Jack Morton said.

"We are not going to be passive when it comes to crap."

Morton said he would like to ban plastic bags and polystyrene food containers immediately.

But Councilwoman Dena Mossar said the potential bans and mandatory recycling require further discussion.

"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."

The plan will really begin to kick in in 2009, when the city's waste is hauled under a new contract, Roberts said. The negotiations will give city staff the opportunity to include other services, such as food-waste collection and increased recycling, he said.

The council did not vote on a location for a potential composting facility Monday, leaving that divisive topic for another evening.

The zero-waste plan is available in the City Clerk's office at City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave., 7th Floor.

In other business:

* About 15 Service Employees International Union Local 521 members attended the City Council meeting to protest the firing of Brandon Porter, a former meter reader. Chapter chair Phil Plymale asked the council to reinstate Porter, conduct an investigation and call for an audit of the Human Resources Department.

"This has been one of the worst few years of labor relations in recent memory," Plymale said.

The union is alleging that Porter was fired in June after testifying in a harassment investigation, which city administrators deny. (See story in Sept. 12 Weekly,

* The council unanimously approved an $859,000 contract with Anderson Pacific Engineering Construction, Inc., for pumps at the Regional Water Quality Control Plant.

The contract divided the council last week after it was challenged by labor leaders, who said the city needed to require its contractors to pay "prevailing wages," a term defined by the state.

On Thursday, Peter Anderson of Anderson Pacific e-mailed the council, stating: "We will pay prevailing wages on subject project."

Anderson's pledge satisfied the council, but it wasn't enough for Juan Garza, a senior compliance officer for the Joint Electrical Industry Fund of Santa Clara County.

"They're missing the big point," Garza said. He said the city should have stated the project was a "prevailing wage" project when it was listed for bids. He again disputed that he was solely working on behalf of second bidder D.W. Nicholson, although that firm was a member of the industry fund.

Garza has already initiated a California Department of Industrial Relations review of the project.

As a charter city, Palo Alto doesn't have to pay prevailing wages on projects that are solely "municipal." Garza contends the pump replacement is not municipal because it involves the several communities that use the treatment plant and affects the Bay, which is of statewide concern.

The issue is worth further consideration, Councilman Barton said.

The council referred an investigation into the city's use of prevailing wages to its Policy and Services Committee on a 6-3 vote, with Mossar, Beecham and Morton voting no.

"I think we have a fiduciary responsibility to not go in this direction," Mossar said.

Roberts has said he believes a prevailing wage policy would not have a significant effect on complex efforts that require skilled workers, but could affect maintenance projects.

(Staff Writer Becky Trout can be e-mailed at


Like this comment
Posted by alex
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 18, 2007 at 1:59 pm

Just pile it up higher, throw dirt over, and make some nice hills next to the bay!

Like this comment
Posted by Big Al
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 18, 2007 at 4:09 pm

Zero Waste huh!
That's a formidable goal- though it sounds worthy in nature!
Practical? I suppose so.
Shift away from petroleum based products- plastics and all that jazz.
What shall we do with our own excrement though?
Will we keep running it toward the bay everyday?

Like this comment
Posted by Dirt Digger
a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2007 at 5:01 am

In rural areas of Britain they only have garbage collection once a month so you bury your garbage in the back yard, will we be doing the same?

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 19, 2007 at 6:38 am

If they don't want to handle waste disposal they should get another job.

Like this comment
Posted by janet
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 19, 2007 at 8:58 am

I would like to see some suggestions about how to reduce waste. If you are already recycling, buying stuff with minimal packaging, you still have trash left.

Like this comment
Posted by Kelly
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 20, 2007 at 12:09 pm

The zero waste policy will never work. So long as disposable diapers are manufactured, Mothers are going to use them. What are Mums supposed to do put them in the recycle bin!!! How about all the waste produced by tearing down old homes in PA and replacing them with new ones. And, the biggest land filler of all "old carpets".

If you get to zero waste you presume people will no longer buy things that will ultimately be thrown away. How about our retail tax dollars!!!

Like this comment
Posted by mcmansion slowdown?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 20, 2007 at 12:25 pm

Does this new zero waste plan mean that the city will be more restrictive in the tearing down and tossing out of older/smaller/unwanted homes?

This type of waste -- literally a house-full at a time -- is on a much grander scale than plastic bags and styrofoam. Let's see how consistent the city is with its varied plans & policies.

Like this comment
Posted by Marvin
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Sep 20, 2007 at 12:54 pm

Where do people's property rights (i.e. the right to tear down or remodel a home) and people's right to buy what they want (be it plastic, styrofoam or anything else) fit in with this plan to move to zero waste?

Like this comment
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 20, 2007 at 2:32 pm

I hesitate to comment in such a rough-and-tumble posting, but I will try to defend our efforts toward Zero Waste.

I came to this very much a skeptic, and worried the slogan of "zero waste" might harm rather than bolster the effort. Still it is the term-of-art we are using in the next step to manage our waste more effectively and economically. I did serve on the Zero Waste Task Force, and it was not always easy.

My comments herein will never satisfy certain parties that never met a canyon they did not like for the prospect of dumping waste -- I will not meet your concerns nor try. I am trying to speak perhaps to the main body of folks who want a reasonable waste management system that embodies many of Palo Alto's core values. Hence we have said, zero waste...or as close as we can get.

Zero waste as an approach is a compilation of tools that will come into play to meet the resource and disposal constraints that are already upon us. The dump will close. Other dumps will charge more because they are capitalists. Resources will cost more, and environmental protections will be more stringent. As such the zero waste strategy could be reasonably expected to anticipate economic constraints.

The Council seemed in their action to legitimize the staff's consideration and application of these tools, but did not enact them. This at the time seem very very vague, and perhaps lacked the back bone I sought, but ultimately it will allow each of the zero waste elements to be vetted, and voted up or down.

Zero waste will layer on top of our waste management and recycling programs applying approximately 60 or so new policy and recovery tools. They will be sector-based (residential or commercial), and waste/resource component-based (cans, bottles, yard waste). A waste/resource strategy may first seek to discourage a component (i.e. no plastic bags), and then make sure that a recovery option exists when the component still shows up in the waste stream.

I expect there will always be an economic test to activating any one of these tools. Furthermore, they will typically be competitively bid.

As has been noted elsewhere, we are going to have to perfect these approaches -- with 60 as a starting point one a subset will be adopted.

The "Zero" approach might be part of the future. We will certainly need a "zero water" strategy to meet water resource constraints, and a "zero energy" strategy to meet global warming/energy constraints. Again, the "zero" might be an unfortunate term. Still in effect we are trying to shake-the-tree to cause a mind shift that 5 percent decreases are not enough, but rather 20 or more percent decreases are needed. Recall that consumption wise Palo Alto operates way above global and even national norms.

Let the arrows begin Mr. Wallis!

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 20, 2007 at 3:07 pm

" and a "zero energy" strategy to meet global warming/energy constraints"

Bob, What do you mean by this statement? Are you saying that plug-in hybrid cars or all-electric cars will be banned? Doesn't the computer you are using to write your post require energy?

Like this comment
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 20, 2007 at 3:18 pm

The "zero energy" term aligns with the "zero waste" term whereby one would analyze the various pathways that energy gets used, and target pathway-based conservation strategies. As your comment seems to raise, the term "zero energy", like term "zero waste" can be an unfortunate phrase because it embodies the "impossible". If it is impossible to have "zero" waste, then the community at large might discount the effort. In defense of the term, it does makes you sit up for a moment and realize that this is targeting a much higher reduction level. Perhaps in time Palo Alto could reevaluate the term "zero waste" if the term keeps causing too much backlash, replace it with a term that is more practical to achieve. For example there was not as high a backlash to the term "conservation", and yet significant progress has been made without getting stuck on the terminology. The "zero waste" term was picked because the proponents were trying to show that we were moving far beyond just recycling, and causing a more significant impact on consumption patterns in light of their resource impact. (Got a bit wordy here -- sorry)

Like this comment
Posted by John
a resident of College Terrace
on Sep 20, 2007 at 3:41 pm


You can argue semantics till the pigs fly, but you seem to be avoiding the realities. It will require major energy resources to achieve "zero waste" standards. Reductio ad absurdum, we can "conserve" our way to poverty and mass starvation, thus preventing any wastes or energy use, but that will not win many elections.

We need more energy, in order to achieve "zero waste" and less air pollution. That is a fact. How would you achieve this, Bob?

Like this comment
Posted by Mr. Compost
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 20, 2007 at 10:13 pm

Zero Waste is visionary; that's why so many in this forum don't get it. :-)

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 21, 2007 at 6:47 am

From zero waste to the real goal - zero people.
Gaiaism is a weird religion. Its practioneers are fools.

Like this comment
Posted by Terry
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 21, 2007 at 8:14 am

Here's an idea - let's start with zero potholes; then zero storm flooding; then zero lousy public buildings (police, library); and THEN we can work on zero waste and zero energy. How's that sound?

Like this comment
Posted by Kelly
a resident of Green Acres
on Sep 21, 2007 at 8:29 am

Zero Waste, zero water, zero energy may be a goal of the zeros but for the economy to grow you must grow waste, grow water and grow energy. Yes, mankind has to make some huge choices in the future; I'm glad I won't be around at the end of the world as we know it.

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Sep 22, 2007 at 8:39 am

Don't talk water shortage when the vast majority of the precipitation flows to sea unused by us.
Don't talk energy shortage when all we lack is the will to meet needs.

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Triple El

on Jun 4, 2017 at 6:56 pm

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Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Greenmeadow

on Jun 6, 2017 at 4:00 am

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