Palo Alto neighborhoods compete over trash reduction

Mini-can challenge to inspire recycling, creative composting

Three neighborhood groups have thrown down the gauntlet over trash. The friendly rivalry pits the Barron Park, College Terrace and Midtown Green Teams in a "mini-can challenge," to get at least 50 percent of their residents to use the city's smaller 20-gallon trash receptacle.

The challenge was inspired by a recent map published by the City of Palo Alto's Zero Waste program, which showed mini-can usage by neighborhood, Midtown Green Team member Debbie Mytels said. The city challenged the community to achieve a rate of 50 percent mini-cans.

Grassroots environmental teams work on projects that reduce people's carbon footprint, so a campaign that would help reduce methane and carbon dioxide from garbage seemed a perfect fit. When she learned the Palo Verde neighborhood just to the south of Midtown came in first at 37 percent, Mytels' competitive spirit was fired up.

"Midtown can do better than that!" she said.

Mytels and Lisa Altieri, Palo Alto Green Teams organizer, came up with the mini-can challenge, which launched on Earth Day, April 22, she said.

"We came up with the idea that it would be cool to challenge our neighborhoods to see which one could get to the 50 percent mini-can usage first. Our motivation? Just basic neighborhood pride -- and a desire to get more people into using mini-cans," said Mytels, who is the program developer for local nonprofit group Acterra.

Palo Alto has considerable garbage that could be recycled. According to the city's Zero Waste website, approximately 43 percent of city garbage is recyclable. Paper alone comprises 14 percent, or 11, 200 tons.

Switching to mini-cans saves a household $203.52 annually, according to Palo Alto Neighborhood (PAN) Green Team organizers. Mini-can garbage service costs $15.90 per month; regular 32-gallon can service costs $32.86 per month.

Mytels said her household has used the mini-can for about three years. The can is actually a regular 32-gallon receptacle with an insert that lowers the capacity to 20 gallons.

"We've been happy and saving money ever since," she said.

Switching to a mini-can potentially has an added environmental benefit. Some residents use the savings to sign up for PaloAltoGreen, the city's renewable-energy program that supplies power from 100 percent wind and solar sources.

Anne Schmitt of College Terrace said her neighborhood green team's meeting Wednesday highlighted the challenge. Group members were doing a trial canvassing of the neighborhood, she said.

Last month, the group arranged a tour of the transfer center for the city garbage company, GreenWaste. Residents saw first hand en masse what Palo Altans put in the trash.

"The amount of plastic bags people throw away -- the ones we get when we buy broccoli -- that were on the GreenWaste conveyer belt was huge," she said.

At the College Terrace Residents' Association annual picnic, a neighbor's worm bin was the biggest hit, she said. At the end of the picnic, the worms got the ends of hamburger buns and other scraps.

College Terrace resident Ute Engelke regularly feeds her 5,000 head of worm "livestock" everything from table scraps to old blue jeans. All of her household trash has fit in a 1-gallon bucket for years, she said. Years before the city offered a mini-can and recycling, Engelke said she wrote "mini-can" on the lid of her covered bucket so trash collectors would pick it up.

She's since switched to the city's 20-gallon can, but it takes at least a month before she has enough trash to put it curbside, she said.

Engelke said she adds the blue jeans without cutting them up. The worms devour them with gusto.

"It takes maybe three months to eat up. Only the zippers stay behind and the seams made with polyester," she said.

Barron Park has a good chance of winning the competition, Altieri said. Barron Park's team "just grabbed onto this. They are going gangbusters, canvassing the neighborhood, dropping off fliers to everyone with 32-gallon cans, holding house visits to help people learn how to reduce their waste," she said.

The Green Team created a survey about the mini-can service that went out to residents in April. Altieri said she is talking to Palo Alto Mayor Sid Espinosa about a possible recognition award from the city for the winning neighborhood -- something beyond the bragging rights.

Mark Georgia, Barron Park Green Team committee member, said he is ready for the challenge.

"Our Barron Park Green Team is throwing down the gauntlet and invites all neighborhoods in Palo Alto to accept the challenge," he said.

Georgia said the Barron Park group counted how many residents use mini-cans. They leave information about the fiscal and environmental savings under the doormats of residents who use larger bins, he said.

Reducing the level of trash isn't difficult, once one becomes mindful of recycling and making good purchases based on less packaging, he said.

"For years, we have had a mini-can. It's gotten so that most weeks we don't even have half a can of garbage," Georgia, an avid gardener who composts kitchen scraps, said.

"If you have a garden, there's all that packaging that won't go in the garbage."

Mytels agreed.

"I've been a recycler since the days of burlap bags -- and a backyard composter since the '70s, too. Even when there were five of us in the house, we never needed more than one 32-gallon can. So much more can be recycled now than it could when my kids were growing up. If people follow the recycling guidelines, even if they have a larger family, many can get by with using a mini can," she said.

Residents who want to switch to the mini-can service can call GreenWaste at 650-493-4894 or email A backlog could mean waiting for a month or more, Mytels said.

The mini-can progress report is updated quarterly and is available at

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Like this comment
Posted by MidTownResident
a resident of Midtown
on May 25, 2011 at 9:43 am

This certainly seems like a step in the right direction. Our 20-gallon trash can is never even close to full. I used to have a 10-gallon can and that wouldn't be more than half full most of the time. There are times when we must put things in the trash. But most of the refuse really should be recycling or yard waste/compost. Let's keep working on leading by example.

Like this comment
Posted by Me Too
a resident of Midtown
on May 25, 2011 at 10:11 am

Great idea! Nothing like a contest to call people to action - much better than preaching and more fun.

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 25, 2011 at 11:06 am

Absolutely no point, it will only mean that we have to pay more to have the trash removed!

Like this comment
Posted by Steve
a resident of Evergreen Park
on May 25, 2011 at 11:06 am

While I applaud this effort and I am also a mini-can subscriber, we palo-altans need to realize that success at increasing mini-can subscription will paradoxically increase disposal cost for home-owners. This is because the fixed cost stays the same even where there is less refuse. The next step is to think hard about reducing those fixed costs as well.

Like this comment
Posted by awaiting her can
a resident of Green Acres
on May 25, 2011 at 11:08 am

I signed up for a mini can a few months ago and greenwaste told me there was a backlog. They said they'd charge me for the mini and give me one when they arrive. I'm still waiting (and happily paying less).
Not sure what takes so long to order a bunch of cans. Seems odd to do such a challenge when the provider can't support demand PRIOR to the challenge. The effort is indeed a great step in a positive direction, regardless of execution challenges, so, kudos to the drivers of this.

Like this comment
Posted by ChrisC
a resident of College Terrace
on May 25, 2011 at 11:31 am

What's the point? I usually have one little plastic bag of garbage, yet they are raising the rates again on trash pickup, including the recyclables. I've been "green" for many, many years, but, frankly, I don't see the reward.

Like this comment
Posted by Joe Baldwin
a resident of Downtown North
on May 25, 2011 at 11:37 am

Our 10-unit condo used to have three (3) 96-gallon garbage cans - nearly
29 gallons per household.
We now have only one (1) such can -less than 10 gallons per household.
Everything else goes into one of 3 blue recycling bins, or our one green
compostables bin.
Our concern is the CPAU/Greenwaste bait-and-switch approach. We were urged to make our changes by the promise of reduced costs to us.
Meantime rates have already gone up twice and we now expect that the
"free" blue and green bins will stop being "free" later this year.

Like this comment
Posted by bikes2work
a resident of Santa Rita (Los Altos)
on May 25, 2011 at 12:17 pm

From the article: Last month, the group arranged a tour of the transfer center for the city garbage company, GreenWaste. Residents saw first hand en masse what Palo Altans put in the trash.

"The amount of plastic bags people throw away -- the ones we get when we buy broccoli -- that were on the GreenWaste conveyer belt was huge," she said.

Was this a tour of the Sunnyvale SMaRT station or the GreenWaste facility in San Jose? The black mini-cans go to the SMaRT station, while the GreenWaste facility processes the blue recycle bins. In Palo Alto, plastic bags can go into the blue bin.

Like this comment
Posted by hmmm
a resident of Crescent Park
on May 25, 2011 at 12:49 pm

College Terrace is bound to win. They'll just follow form, dump all their trash on Stanford and claim victory.

Like this comment
Posted by Wondering
a resident of another community
on May 25, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Wasn't it the too-late reported increase in landfill contract amount from the reduction of the landfill waste stream the reason that poor old Glenn Roberts got the boot in the first place?

Like this comment
Posted by Sheri Furman
a resident of Midtown
on May 25, 2011 at 3:29 pm

Just as a clarification, Green Teams are not part of the Palo Alto Neighborhoods (PAN) organization, but rather are part of PA_CEAP.

Sheri, PAN Chair

Like this comment
Posted by Don
a resident of Downtown North
on May 25, 2011 at 4:48 pm

To prevent the plastic bags from flying off the SMaRT station conveyer belt. stuff them in a larger size plastic bag, tie it off and put the "sausage" into the recyclable bin.

Like this comment
Posted by Cedric de La Beaujardiere
a resident of Barron Park
on May 26, 2011 at 1:39 am

Cedric de La Beaujardiere is a registered user.

We use a mini can and save money from it. The city is currently locked into an unfortunate put-or-pay contract with the Kirby Canyon Landfill, which requires the city to pay a minimum fee if they deliver less than the minimum amount of garbage. This 20 year old contract may have initially led to lower garbage rates, but now it has the perverse impact of penalizing the city for generating "too little" trash. However, this contract expires in 2021, at which point I'm sure the city will try to get a better rate that doesn't penalize it for reducing its trash.

Getting as many people as possible to use the mini cans will help to train and trend the city towards lower trash generation. Such a behavioral shift can take a long time, so it makes sense to start now. And, despite the put or pay, less trash to pick up saves on fixed costs: fewer trips back and forth from residences to the landfill, so a truck can cover more area before they have to empty their truck. Plus, we don't even put out the garbage, compost, or recycling bins most weeks, because they aren't full enough to warrant it, so this also saves the city money, with that many fewer bins to empty.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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