Composting services in Palo Alto would be expanded, promoted and, in many cases, required under a significant contract overhaul that the city is set to implement with its trash hauler, GreenWaste of Palo Alto.
The City Council is scheduled to vote on Monday on an amendment to its agreement with GreenWaste, the hauler that has been collecting the city's waste since 2009. The new agreement, which will stretch the contract until June 30, 2021, includes several new composting programs that will affect all residential and commercial customers, though in drastically different ways.
Somewhat fittingly for a composting program, the new contract includes a mix of carrots and sticks. While residents would receive kitchen buckets and curbside pickup, commercial customers would be subject to a fine them if they trash items that are compostable or recyclable.
The residential program would allow customers to commingle their food scraps, food-soiled paper and yard trimmings in a green cart and have it hauled off by GreenWaste. Food scraps could be placed in the green cart in a compostable bag, in a paper carton, in any other compostable container, or just loose.
The buckets would be part of the city's big outreach effort aimed at making sure all residents know what types of waste go where.
For the commercial segment, the city is taking a different approach. Under the existing contract, commercial customers already have the option of subscribing to recycling and composting services, though many have chosen not to do so. Pending the council's adoption of a new law, composting and recycling would be mandatory for commercial customers, and GreenWaste would be the hauler.
The overarching goal is to reduce the amount of local waste heading to landfills. The city has already had some success in that regard since it first signed on with GreenWaste. The existing contract introduced new commercial services for recycling and composting, as well as a recycling program for construction and demolition materials. The city's diversion of materials from landfill shot from 62 percent in 2009 to about 78 percent today. Yet the rate has stayed fairly flat since 2010 as many commercial companies have opted to throw their recyclable and compostable waste in the trash. In fact, city data shows that after peaking in 2010, the city's overall diversion rate has actually been dipping slightly. Between fiscal years 2011 and 2014, the tonnage of compostable waste recovered has dropped steadily, going from 11,932 tons to 11,487, according to Public Works.
Commercial customers are trashing more than 7,000 tons of compostable material and more than 6,500 tons of recyclable material annually, according to the city. Ron Arp, the city's solid-waste manager, told the council's Finance Committee in March that only about 30 percent of the city's commercial customers subscribe to the voluntary composting program. Furthermore, fewer than two-thirds of food establishments (62 percent) currently participate, he said.
"We think quite a bit of waste material would be divertable," Arp said. "This ordinance would mean that for these businesses, it would be mandatory that they would subscribe to composting services if they generate compostable materials."
According to the report, the contract changes are expected to "achieve the city's and GreenWaste's goals to recover more recyclable and compostable materials, reduce costs where possible, improve driver safety and enhance services, and lead to a reduction in the city's overall greenhouse-gas emissions." The residential curbside program is expected to recover about 3,000 tons of waste annually. It mirrors similar programs in San Francisco, Menlo Park, Atherton, Berkeley and Oakland, according to a March staff report.
The new services will, of course, come at a price. The new contract will raise the city's trash costs by about $1.3 million annually, which means customers can expect to see rate increases for the next few years. This increase will account for roughly a third of the rate hikes that residents will soon experience, according to Phil Bobel, assistant director of Public Works. The rest of the increases is due to the need to balance the revenues and expenses in the residential sector, Bobel said.
According to a report presented to the council's Finance Committee on March 3, residential rates will increase by 9 percent in the next fiscal year, which begins on July 1, and by 8 percent in each of the following two years. The committee endorsed the proposal to extend and amend the contract with GreenWaste, though it also asked staff to consider a proposal that would spread out the cost increase over four years, thereby minimizing the jump in any given year.