On a misty Saturday morning at the city of Palo Alto's Household Hazardous Waste Station, a small line of cars slowly snaked through the station, as residents in vehicles handed off unwanted items to workers in safety vests. The workers whisked the items away on carts into a maze of large metal bins.
The Household Hazardous Waste Station doesn't seem like a place where visitors could browse for household products. But some of the items dropped off by residents on this morning might, after screening, get a renewed chance at usefulness on the neatly arranged shelves of the city's updated Reuse Zone.
At this large, colorfully painted shed near the station entrance, visitors can pick up free, gently used cans of paint, household cleaners, clean motor oil and similar automotive products, and garden sprays.
"We would get a lot of really good material in through the Household Hazardous Waste program that we collect from residents who maybe did a small project but they have leftover epoxies or paints, or maybe someone is moving and can't take all their cleaning supplies with them," said Elise Sbarbori, the city's manager of environmental control programs.
"Otherwise that material would go for either recycling or disposal, so the idea was to develop a program in keeping with the EPA's (Environmental Protection Agency's) waste hierarchy of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle." Residents could take for free these items that came in that could still be used — really good, useful household products," she said.
Visitors to the Reuse Zone can take home up to five items on each visit. They're asked to sign a waiver acknowledging that although the city's household hazardous waste contractor, Clean Harbors, screens for quality before they're placed in the Reuse Zone, the city can't 100% guarantee the items.
The city of Palo Alto has had a household hazardous waste program since 1983, Sbarbori said, and the Reuse Zone concept isn't new for the city — Sbarbori noted that the program has been in place since the city's permanent Household Hazardous Waste Station opened in 2013. Last year, the program diverted about 5,600 pounds of materials for reuse, according to a city news release.
But the city recently marked the opening of its updated Reuse Zone, which significantly expanded the storage capacity for items and gave the area a cheerful, more noticeable new look.
"Due to the success of this reuse program, we wanted to encourage more people to come visit. We were limited by the capacity of what we had available at the station, so we expanded our program with this much larger shed, and rebranded it as the Household Hazardous Waste Reuse Zone," Sbarbori said, estimating that the new capacity is somewhere between six and 10 times what it used to be.
"I've been coming here for years," said Jim Cornett, who was visiting the Reuse Zone last Saturday and recalled that the program's offerings used to be housed in a cabinet.
Cornett picked up toilet bowl cleaner and a container of Floetrol, a paint thinning medium meant to reduce brush marks. Then he checked the paint shelves for a small can of light brown paint. "It doesn't have to be an exact match," he said.
Nearby, another visitor, John Hiss, picked up a can of kerosene, "for general use," he said.
The Reuse Zone shelves on this day included common household cleaners, insecticides and motor oil, as well as some more specialty items, from laundry starch to concrete cleaner. Cornett pointed out some Engine Brite, a car engine cleaner.
Paint in particular seems to be in great supply: The bottom shelves of the Reuse Zone are lined with cans of paint in just about every size and color.
"The city's zero-waste mission is to keep waste from being burned or buried. Many of the materials that go into the Reuse Zone, if they were to be disposed of, would have to be shipped out of state to an incineration facility," Sbarbori said, noting that paint, when it's not in good enough condition to be reused, will be made into new paint by a recycler called PaintCare.
"But strong acids and bases — a lot of cleaners or pesticides and herbicides — would have to be trucked out of state to a facility in Nebraska in order to be incinerated there. This avoids that disposal fate and actually enables residents to use these products for their intended purpose, which is the best use of the resources that were required to create them in the first place,"she said.
At the Reuse Zone, Cornett did find the shade of paint that he was looking for. Since he only needs a small amount of paint, once he's completed his project, "I might bring the paint back," he said.
If you're interested
The Reuse Zone is open during regular hours at the Household Hazardous Waste Station, every Saturday, 9-11 a.m., and every first Friday of the month, 3-5 p.m. Only Palo Alto residents may drop off household hazardous waste at the station, but the Reuse Zone is open to the everyone.
The station is located at 2501 Embarcadero Way, Palo Alto. For more information, visit cityofpaloalto.org/hazwaste.
Visitors don't have to drive through the station to access the Reuse Zone, but can park in a lot adjoining the station and access the area through a side gate, which is marked by brightly colored signage.