City staff: Palo Alto needs residents to do better job of sorting, cleaning recyclables | News | Palo Alto Online |


City staff: Palo Alto needs residents to do better job of sorting, cleaning recyclables

In light of new restrictions, waste-processing centers could use more help from residents, businesses

In order for all area residents to have important local information on the coronavirus health emergency, Palo Alto Online has lifted its pay meter and is providing unlimited access to its website. We need your support to continue our important work. Please join your neighbors and become a subscribing member today.

Contamination restrictions for recyclables have become more strict in China, affecting sorting stations in the U.S. and pushing city waste haulers to ask for public assistance with separating their refuse, according to Phil Bobel, Palo Alto's assistant director of public works.

China recently established a 0.5% contamination standard, meaning any recyclable materials more than that level of non-recyclable material will not be accepted. This new regulation has discouraged GreenWaste of Palo Alto, a company that manages compost and recycling, from sending the country shipments.

In an interview Friday with Palo Alto Online journalists for the webcast "Behind the Headlines," Bobel said the city has stopped sending recyclables, such as paper and plastics, to China because it doesn't want the material rejected and returned, which would cost the city money.

GreenWaste is now redirecting its waste to other Asian countries, even though the hauler is expecting those countries to also enforce tougher standards. For now, Bobel said, those countries are one workaround to China's regulations.

"We are trying to find domestic markets (for recyclables), but we know just finding a market in the U.S. isn't good enough," Bobel said. "That market could just be a vendor who's going to sell it to someone (in Asia), and it could end up out of our control."

This could lead to a lot of mismanagement of plastic and uncertainty of where things are ending up, Bobel said. Greenpeace recently reported that southeast Asian villages are becoming the dumping ground for waste that included in shipments of recycled items.

Starting this July, GreenWaste will need to provide Palo Alto with an annual report stating where exactly paper and plastics are going overseas and what's happening to them, according to Bobel. Right now, there is no tracking system in place, and the recyclables could be creating a social or environmental issue in some countries.

Bobel cited a lack of public awareness as the reason why the contamination of recyclables is happening. A failure to separate recyclables from trash and composting will worsen if it isn't addressed.

One problem is that cities in the Bay Area have different systems for how they deal with recycling, and CalRecycle, a state agency, has not been able to figure out how to help cities respond to the contamination issue, Bobel said.

"We are not getting help from them ... yet."

With the restrictions on contamination increasing, processing centers such as those run by GreenWaste are having to process their material more carefully, and the costs to the cities of recycling will go up, Bobel said.

He emphasized the importance of residents and business alike helping to make it easier for workers at sorting stations to do their jobs.

Not getting water on paper, not putting food in the recycling bin and being more careful with sorting plastic from trash or compostables are just some of the ways people can help with the process.

In particular, plastic film — such as shrink wrap — and bags can get stuck inside sorting machines. Facility workers must shut the machines down throughout the day to remove the plastic.

GreenWaste currently has a campaign for "clean recycling," according to Bobel, and is encouraging residents to help out in two main ways: clean out the recyclables by wiping or scraping them off first and put items in the correct bin (garbage, recycling or composting).

He also explained how grouping smaller pieces of plastic into one giant bag and avoiding throwing loose and smaller plastic pieces helps sorters identify it and actually pull that material out for recycling.

"Yes, we can recycle that stuff, if you bag it," said Bobel. "But if you don't bag it, it just creates a big headache for us."

Hear Bobel expand on the uncertainty facing Palo Alto's recycling operation on an episode of "Behind the Headlines," now available on our YouTube channel and podcast page.

Related content:

A journey of 9,500 miles. Why recyclables are heading overseas to Asia.

Guest Opinion: Recycling a 'good deed' that punishes southeast Asia


Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?


35 people like this
Posted by Greenmeadow mom
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 12, 2019 at 4:28 pm

There would be much less contamination if green waste collected cardboard/paper recycling separately from plastics... even if I follow their guidelines for plastics, they end up wetting/dirtying the paper and cardboard that we are asked to keep clean and dry. I do not understand how collecting everything together makes sense. Unless we are asked to completely clean out and dry our plastic recyclables (which we are not asked to do), there is going to be contamination. Could someone please explain to me what I am missing?

25 people like this
Posted by Garbage Is Garbage
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 12, 2019 at 6:15 pm

I have three for bottles/cans, one for leaves & debris + one for garbage.

I am not going to get anal-retentive & separate them even further. I pay for garbage disposal and if the stuff ends up in South East Asia I could care less.

34 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 12, 2019 at 6:34 pm

The city needs to do a better job of explaining what they want. This is the first time I have ever heard of bagging plastics (other than films). They should give more details on what to do with confusing items like different types of Amazon packaging.

They also need to think about upgrading the recycling bins. I store mine outdoors. The lid is not tight and during the rainy season, a good amount of rain gets into it even when the lid is closed. If wet recyclables is a no-no, then this recycling bin is no good.

3 people like this
Posted by Keep it simple
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Apr 12, 2019 at 8:18 pm

I think simplicity and prioritizing would help. Aim for clarity and simplicity as in: cardboard. There is a lot, what with many Palo Altans and their constant Amazon box deliveries.
Then - perhaps complicated varieties of plastics can be more accurately dealt with -
Continuous education appears necessary
Maybe some way to find local markets for paper?

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Apr 12, 2019 at 10:10 pm

I dump alotta stuff at Stanford recycling off Serra. How are they doing?

47 people like this
Posted by Alan S
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 12, 2019 at 11:08 pm

About 10 years ago (maybe it was longer) you use to have three different kinds of crates to put recycling into the would keep paper, plastics, and metals in different containers. Then one day, Palo Alto took those three crates away and gave us one light blue container and mixed it all together. We should all admit that change was a mistake and return back to the three separate bins.

There is no free lunch. If we want to do recycling correctly, we should be sorting these items ourselves before we put it out on the curb, instead of pawning that task off to someone else downstream after it has been mixed all together.


4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 13, 2019 at 12:23 am

What I find is that the rules in every city are different. When I visit friends their rules are different and when family visit me they do their rules not ours. Some seem to insist that all recycling is washed and dry (think putting old cans in dishwasher). Others want to keep bones/meat out of compost. If it all ends up in the same place the rules are just plain confusing and I am not going to police guests that they have done it right. It just doesn't sound friendly to tell them they have done it wrong or even more unfriendly to go through the trashcan in their bedroom and bathroom after they have left. Feels like spying to me.

14 people like this
Posted by Careless or ignorance?
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 13, 2019 at 1:55 pm

Careless or ignorance? is a registered user.

My neighbors on either side of me seem use the blue recycle can for everything, including in the past dirty pampers! Both families have children and lots of trash. On one side is a rental home that turns over every few years. On the other a home that was an Airbnb for some years but more recently occupied by a family with children enrolled in the local schools but whose primary home is in another country. Both homes are cleaned by domestic workers, sometimes rotating crews, while the occupants of these homes are at work. These workers speak little English and with no one at home to supervise just chuck everything in the blue bin.

13 people like this
Posted by Rainer
a resident of Mayfield
on Apr 13, 2019 at 3:03 pm

Rainer is a registered user.

How can Germany and Sweden, countries with tough environmental laws, incinerate Garbage in the middle of town without killing people, and even have a positive energy balance, that is they produce electricity year round, and hot water for remote heating of whole blocks of houses, in winter.

See, for example, here:

Web Link

10 people like this
Posted by Abitarian
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 13, 2019 at 3:09 pm

I live in a building with 44 units. My sense is that some people want to do the right thing and need more education, but most people just do not care to make any effort at all.

With *44* homes, we have one compost bin which is the same size as given to *1* single-family home. It is emptied once a week. I have never seen it more than about a third full, and almost always, people throw in items that can't be composted, for example, styrofoam containers from take-out food.

We have recycle bins which are always full, but often with items that can't be recycled, for example, various plastic wrapping, soiled pizza boxes. More to the point, our trash bin is always filled with items that could be composted or recycled. Food, cardboard boxes, plastic containers, etc., etc., etc.

Each home has been provided with lots of information about how to use the system and there are very large signs in the area where the bins are stored.

Nevertheless, it seems only a small percentage bother to try, and a much smaller percentage learn to get it right.

5 people like this
Posted by SE Asia Is A Good Place For Our Disposables
a resident of Palo Alto Hills
on Apr 13, 2019 at 3:17 pm

If it's organic, we simply bury the stuff in our adjacent lot next door.

Bones, shells, vegetable & fruit peelings all break down and return to the soil.

> How can Germany and Sweden, countries with tough environmental laws, incinerate Garbage in the middle of town without killing people, and even have a positive energy balance,

They have a smaller population to contend with. !00 people burning trash is a lot different than 1,000+ doing the same.

In the old days, MV/LA residents used to be able to burn brush in backyard incinerators. Not any too many people would be doing it.

22 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 13, 2019 at 3:45 pm

Separating recyclables at home is pointless. The collection trucks mix everything thoroughly when they dump it all into one bin.

17 people like this
Posted by All Mixed In Together
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 13, 2019 at 5:42 pm

> Separating recyclables at home is pointless. The collection trucks mix everything thoroughly when they dump it all into one bin.

Good point as I too have noticed that the collection trucks simply empty the residential recycle containers holding glass bottles, aluminum cans & plastic containers into one truck.

Then they have workers at the final destination points sort & separate them.

It's almost like a 'make extra work' concept.

12 people like this
Posted by Alan S
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 14, 2019 at 9:04 am

I think our recycle program is flawed. We should be pragmatic about what we can recycle. My TL;DR: on that would be don't recycle plastics, instead, focus recycling on paper and metal containers, and then try to focus on using plastics less.

From what I understand, recycling plastics is too difficult because of any kind of contamination on the plastic (like milk left on the bottom of the plastic container) ruins the chemical process needed to recycle it. For this reason, I think we should just give up on the idea of recycling plastics and just include it in the trash and find the best way to make sure it doesn't get into the oceans.

Metals containers and papers are much easier to recycle, so we should use those more, and recycle those.

23 people like this
Posted by Chris
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 14, 2019 at 10:42 am

What a sad joke this recycling scam is. Put all the garbage in one can, deliver it to a gasification plant, which converts it to syngas and slag, with all organic toxins destroyed. Use the syngas to power generators that produce electricity (at a profit). No landfill necessary! Nothing to ship to China!

20 people like this
Posted by eileen
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 14, 2019 at 3:30 pm

eileen is a registered user.

Chris is totally correct when he calls our recycling program a scam!! Someone needs to lose their job over
this deception.

How about we spend our money building one of these instead of more electric cars.
Web Link

Darmstadt has a population of 64k people and supplies energy for its residents. We can do much better for
our residents than sending our trash overseas to pollute poor villages and cities. Shameful!

3 people like this
Posted by Chris
a resident of University South
on Apr 15, 2019 at 11:31 am

Why don’t we pay companies in the US to recycle our stuff? Why expect the Chinese to pay us? Spending money in the US will create jobs here.

Everybody wants something for free - parking, waste, social media. It’s time to pay the piper.

17 people like this
Posted by Judy
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 15, 2019 at 12:32 pm

We need to focus on producing less waste and not continue to use one-use plastic/cardboard containers that end up in landfill, the ocean, or converted to toxic products that will eventually end up in landfill. WE NEED TO USE LESS PLASTIC!

I grew up in Palo Alto when most families used the milk delivery service. Milk was left on the doorstep in thick glass bottles and the empties were left for the milkman to retrieve. The bottles were cleaned and reused. Imagine all the plastic waste that is created by the gallons of plastic milk bottles used once and then discarded. I think when both parents started working away from home and no one was at home to put the bottles in the fridge, the milk delivery service kind of went out of fashion. Why can't dairy companies continue to sell milk in glass bottles that can be returned to the grocery store for reuse. Sure there might be occasional breakage, but once people get used to milk in a glass bottle they will be more careful. They can transfer some of the milk to a smaller more manageable container at home.

I grew up drinking out of a drinking fountain at school. I was rarely sick. Think of all the plastic waste from drinking water out of plastic bottles in the workplace and schools when everyone can drink out of a fountain with no waste.

I lived in Switzerland for a year. At the local grocery store we purchased yogurt in glass containers. We returned the containers to the store and they were recycled/reused by the yogurt company.

I went on a picnic in Germany. There was almost no waste left behind because everyone brought their everyday dishes/cups/silverware/cloth napkins from home to use at the picnic. They scraped the food off and took everything home to clean and reuse. No garbage for landfill. No paper plates, plastic cups/utensils, or paper napkins dumped after one use. This is normal practice for picnics in Germany.

And why not make companies like Amazon responsible for retrieving/recycling their cardboard containers. Customers can leave the empty/flattened boxes out to be retrieved by the delivery guy the next time a package is delivered.

We should focus less on making it easer for recycling companies and more about not creating waste in the first place. We should hold companies like Amazon responsible for the cardboard waste. Waste is EVERYONES problem, including the manufacturer, retailer, and consumer.

8 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 15, 2019 at 12:56 pm

Annette is a registered user.

I have no idea if the suggestion from Barron Park Chris is reasonable and something PA should pursue, but it sounds good. Maybe Peter Drekmeier can weigh in on syngas and slag. There's got to be a better way to handle this waste; the carbon footprint for shipping trash anywhere in Asia must be enormous. Plus, there is something shameful about the practice. Seems to me every country should deal with its own waste.

It probably make more sense to focus more on waste reduction. Packaging is integral to the retail experience. In addition to protecting consumer goods, it is an advertising and marketing medium. Think about how many layers there are in an Apple product. It's nuts! Food delivery companies are also big contributors to the garbage heap. I got a few deliveries from Amazon Fresh and stopped in part b/c of the amount of wasteful packaging.

Maybe we should have Merchant Markets that operate like Farmer's Markets so that merchants can sell their goods un packaged, not wrapped in yards of protective bubble wrap, sans Styrofoam bubbles, and not sealed/boxed/over-wrapped. This would have the added benefit of eliminating some shipments and deliveries, lowering the # of vans and trucks on the road. I know this is an impossibly impractical idea, but something's gotta give somewhere.

And since there's always someone in this town who has data for almost any question: how impactful is household recycling, anyway? My household is obedient to the requirement, but I often wonder what difference our recycling makes.

6 people like this
Posted by Samuel
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Apr 15, 2019 at 2:02 pm

Posted by Alan S... a resident of Greenmeadow

"About 10 years ago (maybe it was longer) you use to have three different kinds of crates to put recycling into the would keep paper, plastics, and metals in different containers. Then one day, Palo Alto took those three crates away and gave us one light blue container and mixed it all together. We should all admit that change was a mistake and return back to the three separate bins."

Alan hit the nail on the head. The change to the present system was a mistake... bring back separate containers for Metal, Glass, Paper/Cardboard and Trash (non-recyclable items). It is the 'Garbage' factor that complicates and contaminates the other recyclables. At my house, I have a fifth bucket for Garbage. In the 'old' days Garbage used to go to the hogs... today Garbage goes goes into my compost pile.

As for ignorance... carelessness... and disregard... that is a whole separate topic

8 people like this
Posted by Rick
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Apr 15, 2019 at 3:13 pm

I like to think I'm not an idiot, but I struggle with the plastics. The recycling type numbers are often hard to read and the GreenWaste instructions for film plastics lead one to believe that any and all plastic is accepted by GreenWaste if properly packaged or bagged. I've been bagging films, as instructed, and now I'll start bagging the smaller solid bits as well. The recycling instructions I have stuck to the refrigerator are entirely inadequate, in my opinion. Perhaps it would be better if the instructions were explicit about what to throw away rather than what to save?

6 people like this
Posted by mauricio
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Apr 15, 2019 at 3:34 pm

mauricio is a registered user.

I'd like to think that the hyper development majority has found the best solution to reducing waste:they eliminated the cap on commercial development. That will do the job.

6 people like this
Posted by Chris
a resident of Barron Park
on Apr 16, 2019 at 10:46 am

@eileen (College Terrace): The incinerator plant in Europe you are referring to involves combustion (with resultant pollution coming up the stack). However, it is much better than landfill. Gasification is not combustion...all the organic molecules are broken apart by the high temperatures (in a low oxygen environment), and then reconstituted to molecular hydrogen and carbon monoxide (syngas). The inorganic materials (e.g. metals) are melted to slag (which can be put to many uses, like concrete block, roadbeds, etc.). A useful way to think about it is to consider using used tires as a 'fuel': In a combustion plants there is a lot of black smoke coming out the stack; in a gasification plant there is no smoke whatsoever.

22 people like this
Posted by Marc
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 16, 2019 at 10:50 am

I think this is pretty funny. In the old days, Palo Alto had clean recyclable streams. Separate boxes for paper, cardboard, glass and metal, etc. High value, no contamination.

Then greenwaste convinced the city to go to the large mixed bins so that greenwaste could save money collecting the waste. And the city paid for the initial cost of the bins. All so that greenwaste could reduce THEIR costs.

Now we find out that no one wants the contaminated waste and it is expensive and hard to separate out.

Why don't we clawback the bonuses we gave to the city employees and city manager for their wonderful service and short cited thinking that got us into this situation.


5 people like this
Posted by Jonathan Brown
a resident of Ventura
on Apr 18, 2019 at 12:14 pm

Jonathan Brown is a registered user.

Time to hire a Special Counsel to investigate. Mr. Mueller is available.

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay up to date on local coronavirus coverage with our daily news digest email.

'A devastating impact:' The coronavirus claims Clarke's Charcoal Broiler, Mountain View's oldest operating restaurant
By Elena Kadvany | 27 comments | 9,242 views

The first few seconds after awakening; before I remember the virus
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 3,596 views

Can you stay healthy without making more trash?
By Sherry Listgarten | 6 comments | 2,988 views

Coronavirus Food Safety Update + New! Insider Tips
By Laura Stec | 5 comments | 2,746 views

Think about helping others in our coronavirus-affected area
By Diana Diamond | 7 comments | 2,722 views



The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by April 10, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category. Sponsored by Kepler's Books, Linden Tree Books and Bell's Books.

Contest Details