City rethinks plan to scrap composting operation

Passage of Measure E prompts discussion about keeping composting local

Palo Alto's composting operation, which was slated to shut down within about a month, could get a new lease on life thanks to the voters' decision last week to make a portion of Byxbee Park available for a waste facility.

The city was planning to halt Palo Alto's composting operation within a month or two as part of the process of shutting down the Baylands landfill, said Phil Bobel, assistant director of Public Works Department. The plan changed last week, however, when voters passed Measure E with 64 percent of the vote, giving the city a new option for local waste management.

The measure, which polarized the city's green community, "undedicated" 10 acres at Byxbee Park, allowing the city to use the land for a waste-to-energy facility that would process local yard trimmings, food scraps and sewage sludge.

Now that the parkland is available for composting, proponents of Measure E are asking the city to revise its plans. Members of the group, which is led by former Mayor Peter Drekmeier, Walt Hays and Bob Wenzlau, attended Monday's City Council meeting to urge the council to extend the life of the composting operation, which consists of outdoor "windrow" piles.

Hays, who was one of the leaders of the signature drive that placed Measure E on the ballot, said voters "made it very clear that they want to at least consider options other than trucking our waste away." Hays told the council it would make no sense to start trucking waste to Gilroy -- as the city has been planning to do -- when a local option is available.

"We ask you to please take all the steps necessary to keep composting here, pending any final decision on what to do with the waste," Hays said.

Cedrid de La Beaujardiere, who co-chaired the blue-ribbon task force that was charged in 2009 with considering the city's composting options, said preserving a local operation would both save the city money and reduce greenhouse emissions by 380 tons of carbon dioxide, when compared with the trucking option. Measure E's passage "immediately presents the city with an opportunity to save on future costs by retaining our local green waste composting operation," he said.

Though the council didn't discuss the subject at Monday's meeting, Bobel told Palo Alto Online that staff agrees with proponents of Measure E that the city should reassess its options in light of Measure E's passage. He said the city had initially intended only to collect enough compost to be able to create a "vegetative layer" that can be used to cap the landfill. Now, the city needs to rethink that plan and consider extending the life of the compost operation, Bobel said.

"It's definitely worth exploring," he said.

"It changes the landscape," he added, referring to Measure E. "We need to pause and we need to analyze our options."

Wenzlau, who co-wrote the ballot initiative, said halting the composting operation would put the city at risk of losing its state permits and require the city to restart the permitting process. He proposed a timeline under which the city would continue its current composting operation until 2012 and later move it to the newly undedicated 10-acre site next to the Recycling Center. The plan also urges the city to proceed with planning and environmental analysis for the new anaerobic digestion facility. If the facility proves viable, construction would begin in 2015 or 2016 under his proposal.

Wenzlau called Measure E's passage a "milestone" and a "critical chapter" for his group's effort to keep composting local.

"The milestone was just enabling the land, but the community held a very strong vision of what they thought Palo Alto can be," Wenzlau said.

"What we now have is an interest in local composting," he added.

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Like this comment
Posted by Yes!
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 15, 2011 at 2:51 pm

"What we now have is an interest in local composting,"

This, alone, is what I voted for.

Like this comment
Posted by Train Neighbor
a resident of Ventura
on Nov 15, 2011 at 3:29 pm

I appreciate the fact that we now have options for keeping some kind of composting on a small portion of the closed landfill site.

Like this comment
Posted by Retired Teacher
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 15, 2011 at 3:38 pm

This is great news! As a gardening fan who has his own compost heaps but also uses the city compost, I'm all in favor of using our green waste locally and saving on truck emissions. On my small lot, I can grow many of the vegetables we eat, and share the extra with neighbors, friends, and food banks. And, there's a great sense of community when folks go to the dump to pick up the finished compost. It would be great to have that keep happening!

Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 15, 2011 at 3:57 pm

Didn't everyone believe they were voting to reduce GHG emissions? But, as we all learned in grade school science, decaying (composting) organic matter releases as much of the greenhouse gases H2O and CO2 into the atmosphere as burning it does.

What we really have now is our Public Works department's first "interim" use for the acreage that gullible PA voters added to its empire. Let's watch and see what this chain of "interim" uses will lead to. We can only be sure it won't lead to the promised anerobic digester, wet or dry.

Like this comment
Posted by somewhere else
a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Nov 15, 2011 at 4:20 pm

can't it go somewhere else besides there

Like this comment
Posted by Bob Wenzlau
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 15, 2011 at 8:43 pm

Bob Wenzlau is a registered user.

Please find the link to the timeline exhibit shared at Council.

Web Link

The timeline shows the relationship of local composting and the ultimate green energy production as well as closing down the incinerator. Composting is an anticipated part of the long-term green energy production from organics as the solids from any anaerobic process (where biogas is generated) require aerated composting to finish the degradation. As such, composting and anaerobic process are complimentary components of municipal organics management.

During the Measure E campaign precinct walkers and farmer's market greeters heard the requests for continued local composting, and with the affirmative vote that request can be fulfilled -- we have the land! We hope this means local drop-off as well as local compost pickup days.

Maintaining local composting as a first step is simple, conventional and cost effective. During the next 6 to 8 months there will be logistics to be worked, but this is a first modest step forward that secures an initial payoff of our initiative.

Like this comment
Posted by Phil
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 16, 2011 at 9:09 am

I'm pretty sure that hauling our yard waste/future compost to Gilroy creates more emissions than taking it to the end of Embarcadero Rd.

Like this comment
Posted by Retired Teacher
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 16, 2011 at 4:24 pm

Curmudgeon--I like your member name, but I don't for a second agree with you that it's better to tote garden waste on big trucks to Gilroy, so it can decay there instead of here. H2O and CO2 are not equal to the waste from diesel or gasoline engines, even if they weren't going to be added to the air no matter where our yard waste goes. Add to that the fact that compost can help reduce the use of synthetic fertilizers, and you've got two convincing arguments for keeping the composting operation here in Palo Alto. There are other good arguments as well.

Let's keep the composting operation going here in Palo Alto!

Like this comment
Posted by curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 16, 2011 at 6:01 pm

"Curmudgeon--I like your member name, but I don't for a second agree with you that it's better to tote garden waste on big trucks to Gilroy, so it can decay there instead of here."

Thank you. At least we agree on my name.

We need to rethink how we deal with garden waste and sewer sludge. The regressive practice of putting back into the atmosphere the CO2 that plants sequestered from it cannot continue. That means we must stop doing composting and anerobic digestion (wet or dry).

And no, I do not mind if those people down there in Gilroy handle my garbage. You should try to get over that hangup yourself.

Like this comment
Posted by Retired Teacher
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Nov 16, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Stop composting? Stop composting? Stop creating beautiful soil out of garden waste, because you have some cockamamie theory that decomposing plants are worse than gasoline and diesel fumes emitted over 40 or 50 miles of highway? Not to mention that the same CO2 will be emitted there in Gilroy. I suppose you're happy that those Gilroy folks can handle your garbage and breathe the "noxious" fumes from decomposing garden waste, because they're not as enlightened as you are.

Or something.

I'm working on my hangups. Maybe you should work on your logic.

Like this comment
Posted by judith
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 17, 2011 at 1:06 pm

why not consider a regulatory taking of some of the vacant offices in the vicinity, trade land in the city for land around the plant

its crazy and misinformed to put a $$$$ dollar figure on the cities parkland

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

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