Palo Alto may close Recycling Center

City considers new refuse fees, Recycling Center closure to balance Refuse Fund

Palo Alto prides itself on recycling, but residents may soon find it more expensive and less convenient to divert their waste from landfills.

The city is considering instituting a new rate for recycling and composting -- services that are currently offered for free. At the same time, staff is exploring closing the Recycling Center in the Baylands, a facility that allows residents to drop off such non-recyclable items as fluorescent lamps, anti-freeze and auto batteries.

The moves are part of a broader city effort to bring stability to the volatile Refuse Fund, which has been losing money for several years and is facing a $3.7 million deficit in the current fiscal year. City officials are also trying to bring the refuse system in compliance with Proposition 218, a state law that bars cities from setting rates that exceed the cost of providing the services for which these rates are charged.

Palo Alto currently charges commercial customers more than the cost of the service provided. Residential customers, meanwhile, get a major subsidy from the city. According to a Public Works estimate, the residential rates would have to be raised by 79 percent and commercial rates lowered by 42 percent for parity to be reached.

The City Council Finance Committee discussed on Tuesday night a variety of staff proposals for balancing the Refuse Fund's short- and long-term budget deficits. The committee balked at a staff proposal to raise residential rates by about 13 percent in October and asked staff to instead consider a flat fee that could be added to each residential garbage bill. The fee would help cover the trash, recycling and composting services.

The new fee is one of many changes the city is considering for its cash-strapped refuse operation, which depends on traditional trash for sustenance. The city loses revenue every time a customer goes green and switches from the standard 32-gallon trash can to the cheaper 16-gallon minican. So while residents are encouraged to recycle more and throw away less, these green efforts are also expanding the budget hole in the Refuse Fund.

To deal with this problem, the city is undertaking of a Cost of Service Study that would analyze the costs of each service and allow the city to completely overhaul its rates, possibly adding charges for composting and recycling. The study is scheduled to be completed in November.

In the meantime, committee members agreed Tuesday on the flat fee for residential customers. Though a flat fee would not encourage conservation, it would bring the city closer to Proposition 218 compliance. The new fee would go in effect in October.

Councilman Greg Schmid and Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd both said Tuesday that adding a fixed fee to customers' refuse bills would bring the city closer to rate parity. Schmid said Tuesday he was "startled" by the existing disconnect in the Refuse Fund between what the residents pay and the services the city provides. Under the current system, he said, customers could be paying for services they might not get.

"How can we be charging garbage rates to pay for all the other services?" Schmid asked.

Staff also proposed saving money by replacing the existing Recycling Center with a smaller facility that would be open twice a week, four hours per day. It would cost about $525,000 to make the needed site improvements, but the city would save about $300,000 a year when compared to the cost of running the current facility.

The committee, however, decided to take it a step further and asked staff to consider a full closure of the Recycling Center. Only about 6 percent of the city's total recyclable items were deposited at the Recycling Center in fiscal year 2011 -- down from about 13 percent in 2008, according to Public Works data.

Councilman Greg Scharff said he would rather see the facility close and have the city add three to four "cleanup days" in which trucks would pick up items that would otherwise be bound for the Recycling Center.

"I'd like to come up with a plan to eliminate the Recycling Center," Scharff said. "I think it makes sense."

Residents would also be able to take their fluorescent lamps, cooking oil, CDs, motor oil and antifreeze to the Sunnyvale Materials Recovery and Transfer Station (SMaRT).

Staff is scheduled to return to the committee on July 19 with a new fee proposal.

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Like this comment
Posted by Joey
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 5, 2011 at 11:52 pm

If we are committed to being green, how can we possibly discourage recycling?

Like this comment
Posted by nac
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 6, 2011 at 8:12 am

Just charge us for the green recycling bins too. Still at a lower rate than regular garbage so there's an incentive to recycle. At the end of the day if something free is costong too much, charge for it. Problem solved.

Like this comment
Posted by Sandy
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 6, 2011 at 10:53 am

Why is it when we do what the City wants us to do, we are penalized. I don't feel closing the recycling center is a good idea. We use it for items that cannot be put in our recyling bin. Push comes to shove, I will take all my recycling over to the Stanford recycling center where I will not be charged and still be able to recyle.

Like this comment
Posted by barbara
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 6, 2011 at 11:02 am

What I find hard to swallow is how the City Council and supposedly professional City Staff are constantly "shocked" by the results of their actions and by State Laws that they supposedly know nothing about. And of course the answer is always the same: charge the citizens of Palo Alto more and more and more.

Like this comment
Posted by the_punnisher
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 6, 2011 at 11:13 am

All those smart people in Palo Alto seem to ignore basic economic common sense:

Use less of a service and the cost of maintaining that infrastructure stays the same...prices MUST go up.

That is the basic penalty for " going green ".

BTW, a FEE is still a TAX. A city, county or even COUNTRY will always call it a FEE, especially when voters have OUTLAWED TAXES....

In China, the relatives of the victim were charged the cost of the bullet that was used to execute him.

Is that the road the US is starting to follow?

A fee that penalizes the " responsible citizen who recycles " starts the community down that slippery slope....

Like this comment
Posted by Frank
a resident of Ventura
on Jul 6, 2011 at 11:53 am

Well I don't think we're too close to charging for bullets yet...

Charge a flat fee for trash - which includes recycling. If you use the service (and we all do) pay for it. Even if a can, bottle or newspaper can be reduced to it's fundamental elements and made into new products (recycled) it's still "trash" to you. The fee is for the folks who come to your house once a week to haul it away.

I would much prefer (and would not mind paying for) the recycling center to be open all the time. What a pain if we have to save out old CFL bulbs and batteries until a "cleanup day". I'm sure there are many less enlightened among us who would just shove these toxic things into the regular trash.

Like this comment
Posted by David
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 6, 2011 at 1:30 pm

Palo Alto has, at its very core, an objective to be zero waste. And by its very nature, waste is simply bad product design. There is an unavoidable environmental cost of waste which we all must pay for. And we can't continue to hide behind the externalized costs.

Recycling consumes a great deal of energy, and should not be free. Creating a tax or fee for dealing with our waste is a necessary evil, and suggesting that it would discouraging recycling is missing the point - recycling is simply the right thing to do. The issue we appear to be missing, over and over, is curbside compost pickup. San Mateo County did it. Why can't we?

Like this comment
Posted by Paul
a resident of Downtown North
on Jul 6, 2011 at 3:35 pm

"The issue we appear to be missing, over and over, is curbside compost pickup. San Mateo County did it. Why can't we?"

Can you clarify that? Our city has been picking up compostables curbside for decades.

Like this comment
Posted by TimH
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 6, 2011 at 5:25 pm

If the current system "depends on traditional trash for sustenance...(and the) loses revenue every time a customer goes green and switches from the standard 32-gallon trash can to the cheaper 16-gallon minican...(and) efforts are also expanding the budget hole in the Refuse Fund...." then the only choice is to abandon the SYSTEM for a new, smarter plan. If Toyota followed the wisdom of Peninsula money management, the Prius would be a 1987 Camry with new paint every new budget cycle and not bold innovation with early financial risks.

Like this comment
Posted by JustThinking
a resident of Duveneck School
on Jul 6, 2011 at 8:34 pm

Having moved here from an area in the East Coast where one had multiple trash providers to choose from, one obtained great service at a much lower price. And if you had more than your trash bin size could accomodate every so often, that was OK. And the recycling center made money (but forced us to bring our stuff to a central site and do separation outselves).

Just to say that there are other ways to do things.

Like this comment
Posted by Southgate Resident
a resident of Southgate
on Jul 6, 2011 at 8:59 pm

Color elimination of recycling "brown"!

Like this comment
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 6, 2011 at 10:06 pm

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

First, this will be a sorry day for closure as I courted my dear wife at the recycle center. But such nostalgia can not guide policy.

Out of this refuse rate crisis can come hard thinking about the role the recycle center is serving. The discussion is important, and can guide a plan for inorganics similar to planning now moving forward for local organics management. An original motivation for our curbside collection of recyclable was to stop the trips to the recycle center. The convenience of curbside was to also increase participation. Those theories proved correct.

The recycling center always has served as the destination for materials that the curbside program has not accepted. The center has collected bulk items (water heaters, washers) that our too big, florescent, liquids like motor oil, and plastics. So even though the tonnages are relatively low, the stream recovered likely augments the recovery in single stream.

The decision to close the recycle center could conflict with the city zero waste strategy. Zero waste set the elimination of landfilling of waste, and as we eliminate options to avoid disposal, we step back from accepted policy. Therefore without adjustments to our collection programs, more materials will enter the waste stream that had otherwise been dropped off. Though the tonnages are small, as we move toward zero waste, having programs for each waste stream component become essential.

Before new commitments are made, we should understand the consequences of losing this drop off center. The following are representative questions:

*What is the impact of the recycle center closure on zero waste commitments?
*Can the single stream be augmented to take additional materials now being collected only by drop-off?
*Can the single stream be expanded further to collect materials that are not collected but still residual in trash? (e.g. spent clothing, polystyrene etc.)
*Can the city consider stronger prohibitions when we deem a material not recoverable by the city? - For example if we don't collect polystyrene, then the city should expand the polystyrene prohibition from merely food containers.
*Can third parties be offered land to run a recycle center separate from city operations? (the original recycle center was operated by Ecology Action before the city took the center over)

That the recycle center and compost centers are closing is ultimately stemming from naive land use policies that prohibited the continued use of these services after the landfill closed. The costs to replace the recycling and even compost operations would not have emerged as new fiscal issues had these land use policies been put in place. Palo Alto is experiencing the price of taking away the land that existing services operated on - we should not be shocked at these fees because we are forcing the closure of these operations. The Council over reached in setting all the landfill lands at park - a portion should have been left for recovery programs. This wisdom would not have existed in the 1960s, but it does now.

The November initiative that will un-dedicate some of this designated open space will let the city have some land where prudent and efficient local treatment of organics will occur. We must undo at least partially these land use constraints that will force continued higher costs. We are learning the fiscal lesson through the forced closure of the recycling center, and the initiative seeks to provide land so that organic management can occur locally which will be much lower cost that paying a remote third party to haul and manage the materials.

The Council should allow some time to consider ramifications of the closure, and explore how new approaches can save money and achieve our proper and responsible environmental goals.

Like this comment
Posted by Cherie
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 6, 2011 at 10:12 pm

I think the recycling center is one of the most useful services the city provides. I use it all of the time. I would like it expanded rather than closed.

Like this comment
Posted by Emily Renzel
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jul 7, 2011 at 6:47 am

At the Finance Committee meeting July 5 there was a lot of information presented that has not been reported. Tonnages collected at the Drop Off Recycling Center have dropped precipitously from 2010 tons in FY2008 to 1046 tons in FY2011. About half of that material is from non-Palo Altans, but Palo Altans exclusively pay for it.

"Universal Waste" items like motor oil and fluorescent bulbs can be disposed of at the city's Household Hazardous Waste Center either at the first Saturday collection day or by appointment mid-week. (Neither the drop-off center, nor the curbside blue bin collection allows styrofoam.) It will cost $600,000 to move the drop-off center and about $300,000 per year to operate it. The operating costs alone would be $300/ton.

When the drop-off center was first created, we had limited curbside pickup. Now we have universal and comprehensive weekly curbside pickup. Under our waste hauling contract every resident has the right to a special pickup once a year that would serve for most large bulky items. Palo Alto also is a partner at the SMaRT Station so we can go there any time to dispose of our refuse and recycling. If you need to go more than once or twice a year, you are probably living a very wasteful lifestyle.

With the Refuse Fund annual Operating Deficit of $3.7 million and long term obligations of $30 million, every expense needs to be scrutinized and I commend Staff and the Finance Committee for their serious efforts to correct this problem.

Like this comment
Posted by anciana
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 7, 2011 at 5:19 pm

I am willing to pay more - although my utilities bills already seem very high. Palo Alto is trying to go green. We can all help by paying a fee for recyling. Not having a recycling center open for daily, regular hours, would be inconvenient and discouraging. If we really are trying to go green, we need to support the various programs that will help us do that.

Like this comment
Posted by Too Little Too Late
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Jul 7, 2011 at 6:29 pm

Palo Alto HAD an awesome green program starting up back in 2004-ish until there was a "change". Someone got a promotion but it was not the person who was already doing a FANTASTIC job with the employees AND the community to go green. An extremely forward thinking person who was just too good for the City. Several years later Palo Alto still cannot figure out how to continue with past progress. They like to reinvent the wheel at every turn to appear to be knowledgeable leaders - so fiscally irresponsible. I guess it comes down to do we close off the useful recycling center or close libraries? Hmmm which community service do we cut? Who is watching the chicken coup? Let us hope Palo Alto council and senior staff do not decide to close the landfill to build a concert venue. I hope they know there will be no market and competition will be fierce. What will they do to generate revenue? Where will the employess go??

Like this comment
Posted by mentalhospital
a resident of Southgate
on Jul 9, 2011 at 12:24 am

They should all go there.

Like this comment
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 9, 2011 at 10:30 am

SteveU is a registered user.

I find it ironic that making Palo Alto 'Greener' by closing the Compost and Recycle Center require everyone that uses the programs to drive through 3 towns to get to the 'better solution'.

Like this comment
Posted by gbd
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 9, 2011 at 12:32 pm

Regarding Frank's complaint about the inconvenience of disposing of CFLs and batteries:

Motor oil and batteries can be placed out for pickup any trash day:
Web Link

Orchard Supply in Mtn View accepts batteries and all fluorescent
Web Link

CFLs can be disposed of at Home Depot in East PA:
Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by DSF resident
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 10, 2011 at 10:02 pm

OK, as far as I am concerned, recycling is part of the utility services for which I, as a Palo Alto resident, pay every month. I'm sure everyone knows that Palo Alto Utilities pay millions every year into the city general fund to support activities that have nothing to do with utilities - pensions, for one. That would be why we have to pay exorbitant fees to have any service upgrades to gas, electricity, water, sewer, etc. I don't understand why I have to pay twice for utility work (which should be built into the monthly bill if the utilities are such cash cows), and I don't understand why some of that excess can't be redirected to fund trash management and recycling.

In addition, it is incredibly environmentally insensitive to say that we should travel 30 miles round trip to Sunnyvale, or drive all over Palo Alto to recycle items that used to be taken care of in the Palo Alto recycling center.

What we should do is set up an efficient regional recycling center, including composting of food and yard waste, and charge a nominal fee to support it. It cost Palo Alto residents money to use the dump, why shouldn't a comprehensive recycling center not charge $5 per visit?

Like this comment
Posted by Katy
a resident of Barron Park
on Jul 12, 2011 at 12:53 am

I found this flyer on line: Web Link

It shows things like pizza boxes, paper plates, food scraps and coffee filters going into the green compost bin. It is a flyer made up by the city, so I have been putting these items into my green bin. Prior to that, I was putting scraps and things like banana peels and coffee grounds (and the paper filter) down the garbage disposer.

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

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