Palo Alto's goal to prevent nearly all waste from going to landfills by 2021 cannot be achieved unless commercial customers are compelled to take part in the city's recycling and composting services, city staff told the Palo Alto City Council on Monday.
But the council, while agreeing with the concept, said Monday the plan is not yet ready for prime time.
A new food-scraps composting program -- in which customers can add leftover food and food-soiled paper to their yard-trimmings bin for pick up recyclables -- went into effect for residential, single-family clients this summer.
Commercial customers currently subscribe to the services on a voluntary basis, Phil Bobel, assistant director of public works, told council members. Without full compliance, it's unlikely the city could budge off its current 80 percent waste-diversion rate, which has remained stagnant since 2010, he said.
Only about 30 percent of commercial customers subscribe to the compost service. Under the proposal, businesses that do their own hauling would not be required to subscribe to the waste services, which are provided by the firm GreenWaste.
For those that use the service but do not sort properly, penalties could range from notification tags on bins to additional fees and fines, including a $77 charge for a "return trip" to pick up refuse after a customer has removed contaminated material.
Five incidents and more would subject the commercial customer to administrative penalties according to the city's municipal code.
Property owners of apartment complexes of five units or more, also covered under the ordinance, would not be subjected to fines if they are providing appropriate containers and signage. Failure to do so would subject them to the same fees and enforcement as commercial customers.
Councilman Greg Scharff said Monday night that the ordinance seemed to be too broad.
Its language might be interpreted to pass on the fines and fees to residential customers, a discrepancy that he found unacceptable.
"Could someone later in the city say we're fining you?" he asked.
Mayor Karen Holman pointed out that the ordinance addresses construction and remodel waste, but it does not discuss salvage.
"It seems to run counter to the notion of having someone deconstruct a house. Our 12-year-old C&D (construction and demolition) ordinance is being ignored," she said.
Bobel said it's OK for someone to come in if the material is separated and bring in someone other than GreenWaste to take salvageable material away.
But Holman did not want the opportunity for salvage to slip away by relying on the existing single construction and demolition ordinance, and she wanted consistency built into the proposed composting and recycling ordinance, she said.
The council decided to refer the ordinance to its Finance Committee. Bobel said that staff will try to bring ordinance to the committee on Dec 8. Staff will also revise the ordinance to incorporate council feedback.
The city began a food scraps and food-soiled paper collection for single-family residential customers on July 15. About 18,000 households now put their food-related refuse directly into the green compostables cart with yard trimmings. The program diverts an estimated 3,000 tons of compostable materials annually, according to the city manager's report.
As currently proposed, the ordinance for businesses and multifamily properties would take effect in three phases, and all food-service establishments and multifamily residential customers would be in the first phase, which would begin April 1, 2016.