Palo Alto approves new deal for waste collection | News | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto approves new deal for waste collection

With new trash contract, city targets global impacts of local recyclables

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China's recent decision to stop accepting most of the world's recyclable materials rippled through Palo Alto on Tuesday night, when city officials approved a new contract that explicitly requires the city's trash hauler to track the final destination of local recyclables.

The provision is part of a contract extension between the city and its hauler, GreenWaste, which the City Council approved Tuesday by a 5-1 vote, with Councilman Greg Tanaka dissenting. The new deal, which stretches from 2021 to 2026, also requires GreenWaste to devote more resources to managing construction-related waste, cleaning contaminated recyclables and holding clean-up days to collect reusable items, construction-related waste, filters and batteries.

The $22-million deal also requires the city to replace 35 trucks — about 57 percent of GreenWaste's fleet — which are now nearing the end of their useful life, according to Public Works staff. The new trucks are projected to cost $9.1 million.

For Palo Alto, the new deal aims to achieve both stability and environmental sustainability. The city's existing contract with GreenWaste, its hauler since 2009, is set to expire in 2021, around the same time that other cities in the region will also be going out to bid for new deals. Ron Arp, the city's Zero Waste manager, said there is a risk that if the city waits and doesn't lock in a new deal, it will get "squeezed out" of the market because haulers will focus on larger cities like San Jose, one of nine cities that will be seeking new contracts.

The deal also seeks to further lower the percentage of local waste that heads to landfills. GreenWaste will be required to provide bins to construction contractors to sort separated materials and would manage these materials. Public Works staff expect this program to divert more than 7,500 tons per year, about 16 percent of the city's total landfilled waste, according to a Public Works report.

The new requirement that GreenWaste "clean up" local recyclables is expected to divert another 2,450 tons per year. Under the contract, the hauler would expand outreach on sorting requirements for commercial customers and provide additional sorting of marginally contaminated recyclable materials at its processing facility to ensure their marketability.

The new contract is not expected to raise local refuse rates, according to Public Works staff. That's because the Refuse Fund has been realizing more revenues than expenses and the fund's reserve currently has more than $18.1 million in it, well above recommended levels, said Paula Borges, environmental program manager at Public Works. The city's hauling expenses will amount to about $136 per ton, roughly in line with Menlo Park ($135 per ton) and Redwood City ($143) and well below San Francisco ($282).

"We receive a good value from the GreenWaste program," Borges said.

Among the biggest changes is the new requirement that the hauler track the destination of recyclable goods. Historically, China has served as the primary market for recyclable materials. That, however, changed in January 2018, when China stopped accepting recyclables that are not 99.5 percent pure. Its ban prompted the market to shift to other Asian countries, including Vietnam and Malaysia.

In response to China's new restrictions, the contract requires GreenWaste to gather information on the "environmental and social implications" associated with the full life cycle of Palo Alto's recyclable materials. Borges noted that China's policy change is "forcing the use of new countries and vendors ... that may not have the infrastructure to handle the volume of materials headed their way."

"This raised concerns that these countries may have environmental and social issues," Borges said. "They may have recycling processes that are creating air and water pollution and using unconventional labor and social practices."

The new requirement that GreenWaste investigate and report the destination of local recyclables is "something no other municipality has," Borges said.

Under this provision, GreenWaste will be required to request annual updates from the purchaser about the disposition of recyclable materials. The hauler will then analyze evidence from "credible media, authoritative institutions and civil society organizations" to assess environmental and human-rights violations in the new destinations. The city will have the option of directing GreenWaste to use different purchasers if any environmental and social issues are identified.

The council generally lauded the new contract, with Councilwoman Liz Kniss calling China's new policy a "huge issue."

"When they stopped taking disposables, as they did last year, that has impacted us dramatically," Kniss said.

At the same time, she and some of her colleagues had some reservations about approving the $22 million contract without involvement by its Finance Committee. Tanaka argued that the city should have gone out to bid to solicit other proposals and urged the council to send the contract to the Finance Committee for more analysis.

"It's a gigantic contract and it's hard to know what's what," Tanaka said.

He also objected to the idea of having the city pay for trucks, which GreenWaste would own, and likened it to a gardener who does work at his house.

"I don't buy him a lawnmower or a rake," Tanaka said.

City Manager Ed Shikada responded that the city is paying for a "service," which requires the purchase of the new vehicles and that it's in the city's best interests not to take ownership of the trucks. Under the agreement, the city would either get the trucks back or get compensated for their value after the contract's duration, staff said.

After going through the budget figures and discussing the various provisions of the new contract, council members generally agreed that the deal has been adequately vetted and warrants approval.

Councilman Tom DuBois noted that residents appear to be generally satisfied with the level of services they're receiving. The newly released National Citizen Survey showed 79 percent of respondents ranking the trash-hauling service as "excellent" or "good" (12 percent said it was "fair," while 3 percent rated it "poor"). Shikada also characterized the new policy on recyclables as "leading edge and potentially bleeding edge."

"I think Palo Alto is really breaking new ground in taking responsibility for what really is an international crisis," Shikada said.


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24 people like this
Posted by What Will They Do Next
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 23, 2019 at 11:34 am

Tanaka makes a great point. Why should the city buy trucks for GreenWaste? The service has been a downgrade from Palo Alto Sanitation Company and despite complaints from residents doesn't seem to be getting better while raising fees. But it shouldn't be a surprise. It's the Palo Alto way.

23 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 23, 2019 at 11:39 am

I remember when we were first issued crates for our recyclables. We had green, yellow and blue crates that could be stacked on top of each other. We sorted metal, glass and paper recyclable into the different crates. When they stopped doing that and issued us a blue cart it was the start of a downward trend that many of us were not happy about. Mixing all the various items into one cart seemed like a step backwards to us, not progress.

What a farce the whole thing is!

12 people like this
Posted by Real recyclables
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Jan 23, 2019 at 12:04 pm

Real recyclables is a registered user.

Very glad we are taking a look at where the recyclables and going and whether it is truly sustainable. Thank you!

7 people like this
Posted by MB
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 23, 2019 at 12:16 pm

I don't want to lose our recycling but I do wonder if it really is being handled correctly- I have heard much of it ends up in landfills because it's dirty. I also agree- why is Palo Alto paying for these trucks at $260,000/ each. Can we not go back to owning our own sanitation collection? I'm assuming Palo Alto will follow Berkeley's lead and start charging $.25 per to go cup- that should help reduce our city waste footprint by getting all those coffee cups.

7 people like this
Posted by TorreyaMan
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jan 23, 2019 at 2:11 pm

TorreyaMan is a registered user.

I fail to see the difference between the city purchase of the trucks, or the contractor purchases the trucks but charges a higher fee to the city.

11 people like this
Posted by Too Many People = Too Much Garbage
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 23, 2019 at 2:12 pm

Where will all the garbage eventually go...perhaps somewhere in the Nevada desert? It seems like a reasonable place.

Part of the problem is that we have too many plastic containers to dispose of. Like others who grew-up in PA, glass milk bottles were left on the doorstep by Peninsula Creamery & then picked-up/re-used when empty.

Also...too many people living/working in PA = more garbage. Over-development has contributed to this ongoing problem.

5 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Jan 23, 2019 at 4:23 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

Palo Alto has far too many permanent residents, and far too many people working in townie to Palo Alto becoming an office park. Regardless, the mega development lobby wants to add tens of thousands of residents and have virtually uncapped commercial development. Those who think waste collection is a big problem now, have no idea what a hopeless nightmare it would become if the various mega development lobbies have their way. Think a thousand times before casting your vote for pro development politicians, because once they are in office, the damage they cause is irreversible.

7 people like this
Posted by Another Resident
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 23, 2019 at 7:22 pm

@Resident: "We sorted metal, glass and paper recyclable into the different crates. "

Perhaps *you* did. Many did not, and when your nicely sorted recyclables get mixed with someone else's not-quite-sorted recyclables the whole load is contaminated... because there's not post-collection sorting such as we have now.

As long as we have effective post-collection sorting, the best thing to do is ensure that the items to be sorted aren't contaminate/don't contaminate other things. Make sure the glass/plastic/metal items are clean enough and dry, there's no food contaminated paper, and make sure the *compostable* plastic goes in the green bin-- it's a contaminant in the recyclable plastic stream.

5 people like this
Posted by Random Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 23, 2019 at 7:28 pm

@Too Many People = Too Much Garbage -- "Like others who grew-up in PA, glass milk bottles were left on the doorstep by Peninsula Creamery & then picked-up/re-used when empty." Yeah, they were washed -- along with the ones that were used as urine collection bottles and various other unsanitary (and some potentially dangerous -- mixing weed killer/pesticide) uses before they were returned. No, I don't hanker for the old days, really.

15 people like this
Posted by Use Outer Space Or Other Planets
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 23, 2019 at 7:40 pm

Couldn't we simply shoot garbage into outer space? There's a lot of area out there and no one would notice any difference or actually care.

Periodic space transports that simply discharge trash or run out of fuel 100,000s of miles away would seemingly do the trick.

Then Earth could remain more green and less polluted. In time, maybe even lifeless planets could be utilized as dump sites. No big deal.

6 people like this
Posted by Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 23, 2019 at 8:05 pm

Use Outer Space Or Other Planets: For about $90M you can get about 9 tons of garbage as far as a geosynchronous transfer orbit on a reusable Falcon 9 Heavy. I think that'll blow our trash collection budget pretty quickly. It's certainly more than the cost of replacing the trash/recycling trucks.

10 people like this
Posted by Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 23, 2019 at 8:09 pm

"There's a lot of area out there and no one would notice any difference or actually care."

That's what we said about the oceans too.

12 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Community Center
on Jan 23, 2019 at 9:25 pm

Does GreenWaste work for other cities? If so, shouldn't the cost of the trucks be shared?

7 people like this
Posted by ferdinand
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 23, 2019 at 10:12 pm

Finally, a step towards assessing how much--or more likely how little--of our collected materials are actually getting recycled or re-purposed. Thank you for this first step. I'm still wondering when we will see the US producers of products bearing the responsibility for recycling their packaging [or paying for/sub-contracting that out to city collectors and purchasers].

Europen is an interesting program targeting this area in the EU. Web Link

4 people like this
Posted by III
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 24, 2019 at 7:12 am

Reading this makes my head want to explode.
Sounds like the Palo Alto City Council is in a round room,
everyone has guns and million bits of info and thinking all
firing same time.
I believe Palo Alto City Council although not perfect did try
to make a thought out decision, based on current info and near
future knowledge. I do thank you for that.
In the end it is a USA recycle problem. We need to improve dramatically.
How? Been in the middle of this before and is a mess. Starting small IMO
like banning plastic straws is a great start based on numbers. But we need
to take more steps everyday. I am trying to recycle cleanly so that
china would take our plastics/glass/newspaper. I am trying to place proper
products in the green bin for bio-dee-gradables :-----).... Part of
recycle and assisting starts in the home, you and me....! Please be a
part of the solution as well....

5 people like this
Posted by Sally
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 24, 2019 at 4:55 pm

Tanaka is right. More broadly, our city staff continually brings really poorly negotiated contracts in front of council. We citizens (judging from friends and comments here) generally just say either "I like that idea" or "not my priority" without ever getting into the weeds, looking at value at price, weighing against alternatives...

Hopefully the Shikada era will move us forward on this front. I would love for our new auditor's first project (whenever we are blessed with one) to evaluate city staff's contract processes from top-to-bottom.

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