Banana peels and apple cores may look like garbage to most Palo Alto residents, but city leaders are increasingly viewing such food scraps as a key ingredient in a decade-long drive to reduce the amount of local waste that gets shipped to landfills.
That was the consensus at the Tuesday night meeting of the City Council's Finance Committee, where members voted unanimously to support several aggressive new proposals aimed at encouraging more composting. The committee endorsed a Public Works plan to launch a curbside-collection program that would allow residents to dump their food scraps and food-soiled paper into their green bins, either co-mingled with yard trimmings or collected in bags.
Each resident would be provided with a kitchen pail that would be used to temporarily keep food scraps indoors before they are emptied into the green bin as part of the program, which would debut in July.
The four-member committee also backed a staff proposal to create a new ordinance requiring commercial customers to compost. As of last October, only 477 of the city's 1,615 commercial customers used the city's composting service, which is currently optional. Furthermore, only 62 percent of local food-service establishments compost, according to a report from Public Works.
Ron Arp, who managers the city's zero-waste program, estimated that the residential program would divert about 5,000 metric tons of compostable material from landfills, while the new requirements for commercial customers would divert another 7,000.
"We view as the largest for diversion is to go after the city's commercial and residential compostable materials," Arp said at the meeting. "This is what the plan will be centered around."
The idea of picking up food scraps at the curb is far from new. Various cities in the region, including Alameda and San Mateo, have been offering the service for years, according to staff. And local residents have long been calling for such a program, Arp said.
"There is a high amount of public interest in this program," he said. "Everywhere we go people are asking, 'Why aren't we doing this?'... We do believe that this is the time to do it."
All four committee members concurred. Chair Greg Schmid and council members Eric Filseth, Liz Kniss and Greg Scharff voted to recommend the approval of both staff proposals. The full council will review the proposals later this spring.
"I really appreciate the fact that we're moving into this direction; that we're moving toward a composting plan," Scharff said.
His main concerns revolved around funding. The new composting program will require the city to strike a new deal with its hauler, GreenWaste of Palo Alto. Staff estimates that the new service would cost about $1.3 million annually, though the city will save about $576,000 by shipping less waste to landfills, according to staff.
This will mean higher rates. Staff has proposed raising refuse rates by 9 percent in July and by 8 percent in each of the following two years. This means a residential customer who currently uses a mini-can and pays $22.29 a month would see the rate rise to $28.49 by July 1, 2017. A customer who uses the standard 32-gallon can would see the rate go up from $40.14 to $51.29 in 2018, with the increase spread out over three years.
Scharff proposed that staff evaluate other ways to manage the rate increase, including possibly spreading it out over more years. The different scenarios will be presented at a later date.
Council members also encouraged staff to continue exploring partnering opportunities with the private sector.
Schmid urged staff to explore a "regional solution that works well for everybody," possibly utilizing the city's existing investment in the SMaRT Station in Sunnyvale.
Phil Bobel, assistant director of Public Works, said staff is talking to neighboring cities but noted that potential collaborations are complicated by the fact that each city has its own contracts and schedules.
The new push for more composting aims to bring Palo Alto's diversion rate from 78 percent to about 82 percent, higher than most cities in the area, according to a staff report.