After prepping a meal, Laura Woodrow snaps down the lids of her kitchen pail, sealing in her food scraps. This countertop container allows her to gather her compostable waste inside before adding it to the larger green bin she hauls to the curb.
Once her small kitchen pail is full and dumped, the contents avoid the landfill and instead travel to an anaerobic digester to produce power and finished compost. The City of Palo Alto expects to divert about 3,000 tons of food scraps per year through this new initiative.
"I don't think they look bad on the counter top," said Woodrow, a Barron Park resident. "This pail is pretty easy."
The kitchen pails made their way to households in June after City Council approved a $387,000 budget for pails and outreach materials back in March. Besides the initial bill, the waste-management changes cost approximately $532,000 per year. The new program, which started on July 1, allows residents to add food scraps to the green bin. Because of the content change, waste is now delivered to the Zero Waste Energy Development Co.'s anaerobic digestion facility in San Jose instead of the Z-Best Composting Facility in Gilroy.
As residents move their compostable waste from black to green bins, they have experienced some foul moments, but have learned to adjust their habits. In Woodrow's case, she started using compostable bags inside of her kitchen pail. While she admits that it feels silly to roll out the green bin every week with one small bag sitting at the bottom, she wants to avoid the smell, mess and potential scavengers.
"Especially on the green bin, the food scraps would cake on the inside," she said. "It was just really gross."
Nicolette Heaphy, Children's Garden coordinator at Hidden Villa, said compostable bags make for easy cleanup and can be found at most local home goods stores. She recommends that residents read the label to ensure the bag is specifically intended for compost. She reminds residents to be cautious when removing the bag from their pail. If scraps sit in a bag too long, the entire bundle will start to decompose, which may cause the bag to break. She recommends adding a layer of paper towel or newspaper to hold the moisture, which helps keep the bag intact.
Out in the larger green bin, Heaphy advises residents to again layer material. This means adding in a layer of grass clippings, then food scraps, then newspaper and then food scraps again or any other compostable combinations.
"If you do it in layers, it will help with decomposition," she said. "If you don't, you just have a nitrogen level right there in one chunk."
Because the green bin waste is headed to a commercial processing facility, Heaphy said people do not need to be concerned about using shredded newspaper instead of large sheets. It will all break down regardless. But, if composting on a smaller scale at home, shredded newspaper will decompose faster.
To manage smells, she recommends lining the pail and bin with newspaper or adding a stronger, compostable scent, such as pine shavings, saw dust, grass clippings or tree leaves.
GreenWaste of Palo Alto, the company collecting the waste along the city's curb, echoes Heaphy's ideas. Katelyn Lewis, environmental outreach manager for GreenWaste of Palo Alto, added that residents can slow decomposition by keeping the bin in the shade and reduce the associated smells by sprinkling baking soda on the heap.
As of an Aug. 21 email from Lewis, she said that drivers have noticed about 60 percent of residents participating in the program.
"We are pleased with that number, and we look to increase participation through additional outreach efforts," she said.
At the start of the program, drivers did notice residents leaving their kitchen pails out for service, which is not supposed to happen. Drivers would then inform the office, and then a customer service representative would reach out to the resident. Now more than a month into the program, Lewis said they no longer see this happening and she believes communication has been effective.
Along with smells and little pails, program changes include longer waste collection routes, Lewis said. This is caused by green bins being dumped each week to avoid food scraps collecting for long amounts of time and the addition of more green bins. Residents in some developments did not have a green bin before because they did not have yard waste. With the addition of food scraps, city staff reached out to those families and supplied them with green bins.
"We are pleased that so many residents have gotten on board with the program," Lewis said, "and we are happy to continue to assist people in adapting to the changes."