A proposal by Palo Alto officials to reduce the amount of trash heading to the landfill could soon bring a new service to city residents and a new composting requirement for local businesses.
In the latest offensive in its war on waste, the city is preparing to launch a program that officials have been mulling for years: the collection of food scraps from residents. Under the proposal that the City Council's Finance Committee is scheduled to consider on Tuesday night, the food scraps would be commingled with yard trimmings in green bins and picked up by the city's hauler, GreenWaste of Palo Alto. The organic waste would then travel to the Sunnyvale Material and Recovery Transfer (SMaRT) Station for sorting before making its way to a regional composting facility.
The city expects the new food-scraps collection program to divert about 3,000 tons from landfills annually, helping the city achieve its goal of having "zero waste" going to landfills by 2021. (More than half of the material placed in residential garbage -- 5,000 tons -- is compostable, according to a city report.)
If the council approves the program, every single-family home in Palo Alto will receive a kitchen pail that would be used to keep food scraps indoors until they are dumped into the green yard-waste collection bin. Acceptable items include spoiled food and scraps such as banana peels, apple cores, meat, bones, egg shells and soiled paper.
In a parallel effort aimed at achieving the same goal, the city is preparing an ordinance that would direct commercial customers to recycle and compost. Modeled after similar regulations in San Francisco, Oakland, Vancouver, Portland, New York and Seattle, the ordinance would require every customer to subscribe to both the recycling and the composting services offered by the trash hauler, along with the garbage pick-up. Currently, most commercial customers have the recycling service, but only 477 of 1,615 commercial accounts have been using the composting service.
Under the proposed ordinance, commercial customers would be required to properly sort their trash into the garbage, recycling and composting carts, according to a staff report. If any cart has more than 10 percent of contamination (material that belongs in a different cart), a notification tag will be placed on the cart. A second violation would lead to a letter and a phone call from GreenWaste staff, inquiring whether training is needed. A third violation, as well as all subsequent ones, would require a "solid waste processing fee," with the amount yet to be determined.
Under the current proposal, the mandatory service would launch for all food-service establishments and for the city's large commercial customers (those that generate 8 cubic yards or more of garbage weekly) in April 2016. In January 2017, the program would expand to include commercial customers generating at least 2 cubic yards of garbage per week. It would then expand to the rest of the commercial customers in January 2018.
Both the new service for residents and the new requirement for businesses seek to address one problem that Palo Alto officials have encountered in their energetic quest for greener trash practices: After significantly increasing landfill diversion between 1995 and 2010, progress has largely stalled in the last few years. According to a report from the Public Works department, the diversion rate went from about 40 percent in 1995, to 60 percent in 2005, to around 80 percent in 2010. Since 2010, however, the diversion rate has remained mostly constant, even dipping to 78 percent in 2013.
Meanwhile, the city's decision to collect commercial compostables has resulted in more than 11,000 tons of waste being diverted from landfills and composted annually since 2011.
Now, staff is proposing to renegotiate the city's contract with its hauler, GreenWaste, and add programs that would restore momentum to the council's plan to achieve the "zero waste" goal that it adopted in 2005.
"If the city is to reach its 2021 zero waste (to landfills) goals, then more aggressive program activities will be needed to 'jump-start' the city's diversion rate," the Public Works report states. "Staff has identified that the largest diversion opportunity in the garbage is compostable organics -- food scraps and food soiled paper, which constitutes over 40 percent of the current garbage stream."
A study that the city performed in 2012 suggested that both the commercial and the residential sectors have tons of room for improvement. The Waste Characterization Report indicated that more than half of the material placed in residential garbage (5,000 tons) is compostable and about a quarter is recyclable. In the commercial sector, about 40 percent of the material found in trash was compostable and 25 percent was recyclable.
By adding the new regulations, the city aims to "divert and recover" between 7,000 and 8,000 tons more compostable refuse. This would raise the diversion rate from 78 percent to 82 percent, according to staff, giving the city a rate higher than most other cities' in the United States.
These changes would, however, come at a cost. The new composting programs, according to staff, would add about $1.3 million annually to the city's agreement with its trash hauler. The higher cost would mean higher rates for residents: up by 9 percent on July 1 and then by 8 percent in each of the next two years, under a preliminary proposal from Public Works. This means that residents who currently rely on 20-gallon "mini-cans" will see their rates go up from the current level of $22.29 to $28.49 over the three-year period, a 28 percent increase. Those who use the standard 32-gallon cans would see their rates go up from $40.14 to $51.29 over the three-year period (also a 28 percent hike). Commercial rates would remain steady for the time being.
The new residential composting program would be significantly different from the experimental two-cart pilot program that the city launched in the Greenmeadow neighborhood last year. That program eliminated the black garbage cart entirely and had all residents sort their disposables into blue and green carts. The new citywide program, by contrast, would use all three carts.
In reviewing the results from the pilot program, city officials gave it mixed grades. Though the program succeeded in diverting compost from landfills, it led to confusion among residents and some resentment about having to pay for plastic bags in which to place their compostable scraps. Under the new program, residents could either bag their organic waste or place it loose in the green bin.
At a June 3, 2014, meeting, Matt Krupp, the city's solid-waste administrator, told the council's Finance Committee that Public Works is "committed to bringing residential food-scrap collection to the City of Palo Alto by July 1, 2015." The proposed program, according to the report, would be consistent with those in cities such as Menlo Park, San Francisco, San Mateo, Redwood City, Atherton, Berkeley and Oakland.
"We believe we need to get the standard up to other Bay Area cities," Krupp said. "There will be impact to ratepayers, but we believe it's an important way for us to reach our 'zero waste' and our diversion goals."