Eager to divert local trash away from landfills, the Palo Alto City Council approved on Monday night a new agreement with the city's trash hauler that city officials believe will save money and support their environmental goals.
The agreement also comes with an ethical question mark that is making some local environmentalists uneasy. While the city may have a clear idea about where the garbage is being diverted from, it has far less insight into where it's going. The trash hauler, GreenWaste Recovery, has been unable to clearly answer that question, despite explicit direction from the council in January 2019 that required the company to track the traveling trash and avoid, to the extent possible, its shipment to nations with less-than-stringent environmental standards.
Despite some reservations, the council voted 6-1, with council member Greg Tanaka dissenting, to approve a new eight-and-a-half year, $40.9 million contract with GreenWaste for hauling and disposing of solid waste. The contract also will officially spell the end of the city's longstanding partnership with Sunnyvale and Mountain View at SMaRT Station, a recovery station in Sunnyvale where trash from the three cities has been sorted for the past 30 years. With the new contracts, the council's participation in the Sunnyvale facility will conclude at the end of this year. Local trash will then be hauled to GreenWaste's material recovery facility in San Jose.
Where it goes after that is less clear. After China moved in January 2018 to effectively close off its market to foreign waste, cities across the U.S. and elsewhere have scrambled to find other options, in many cases shifting to Vietnam and Thailand. Concerned about the environmental damage that local waste might be causing in these nations, the council approved a new contract with GreenWaste in January 2019 and explicitly required the firm to track "environmental and social implications" associated with the full life cycle of Palo Alto's recyclable materials.
GreenWaste has struggled to fulfill this requirement. While its 2020 report lists some of the companies that purchase aluminum cans, plastics, mixed paper and other materials discarded by Palo Alto and other area jurisdictions, most of these partners fail to disclose the secondary market for local trash.
One thing is clear: Much of it goes abroad. One of the companies that receives local plastic and mixed paper, Berg Mill Supply Co., is listed at dealing exclusively with international partners. Another company, CellMark, which also buys mixed paper and plastics from GreenWaste reported having international and domestic partners, though it did not list the nations where it ships the waste. OGO Fibers, which receives mixed paper, reportedly sends it to Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia and Taiwan.
According to a memo from Public Works staff, GreenWaste has shipped about 40% of the materials it has received from the various jurisdictions to domestic partners, which includes all aluminum cans, foil, tin and glass, as well as 90% of polyethylene terephthalate plastic — the type used in single-use plastic water bottles. The remaining 60% went abroad, a shipment that includes almost all rigid plastic, film plastics, mixed paper and cardboard (Palo Alto makes up about 17% of the firm's recyclable materials).
Paula Borges, the city's solid waste manager, suggested Monday that GreenWaste is the best choice for meeting the city's climate action goals, given its commitment to diverting at least 50% of local waste and up to 70%. The SMaRT Station, by contrast, diverts about 30% though it has a goal of getting to 45%.
While council members agreed that they'd like to see more local trash diverted to domestic processors, which are subject to a host of environmental regulations, Borges noted that the domestic market for mixed paper and some forms of plastics remains very limited. And once the trash goes abroad, the city has little ability to track its environmental impact.
"We're making progress, we're going in the right direction, but we don't have enough information, and short of conducting the field trip overseas ... there is unfortunately limited data available," Borges said.
For Bob Wenzlau, an environmental advocate who helped spearhead the city's recycling program, that's not good enough. Wenzlau argued in a letter to the council that the company has not "addressed the question raised for several years by Staff and community about the disposition of waste materials shipped overseas."
"Palo Alto celebrates the recovery of these materials in our sustainability and compliance documents, but it is very likely these materials cause social and environmental impact," he wrote.
Wenzlau also urged the the council Monday not to approve the shipment of local waste overseas unless it can confirm that it is subject to the same environmental management consistent with U.S. standards.
"When the wastes are managed in the U.S., we know their fate, good or bad," Wenzlau said. "We do not know the fate of these materials when they are exported."
Resident Matt Buchwitz concurred and said that shipping waste to countries without environmental safeguards is an "abdication of our environmental responsibilities."
"The environmental effects are far worse from a global perspective while degrading the lives of the recipients of our waste," Buchwitz wrote to the council.
Several council members, including Lydia Kou, Eric Filseth and Vice Mayor Pat Burt shared his misgivings and supported including a clause in the GreenWaste agreement authorizing city staff to quickly divert trash to domestic destinations if opportunities to do so present themselves.
The city, Filseth noted, cannot keep track of what happens with its plastic and mixed paper in countries "on the other side of the world."
Even with these reservations, the council generally agreed that GreenWaste — as the sole company to participate in the city's bidding process — is the best available option. Staff estimated that when compared to the status quo — the continuation of its agreement with SMaRT Station — the GreenWaste deal would save about $4.6 million over the life of the contract.
"While it's unfortunate that we didn't get more bids, this contract saves us money, recycles more materials than the current agreement and I like that they're using newer technology and investing in their business," Mayor Tom DuBois said, referring to GreenWaste's investment in technology such as optical sorters, magnetic separators and artificial intelligence robots.
Tanaka was less confident and pointed to the fact that the city's trash rates remain higher than in neighboring jurisdictions.
"To get good rates, we have to negotiate," Tanaka said. "There has to be another bidding party. … I think we just need to shop around, especially for these large contracts."