Palo Alto leaders often tout the city's strong record when it comes to shifting waste away from landfills.
Between 2007 and 2016, the city's rate of diversion — which includes recycling, composting and reuse — jumped from 62% to 82%. By 2030, city officials hope to bring it to 95%, a key goal of the city's Zero Waste Plan.
But even though local numbers appear strong, things get really murky as soon as recycled goods leave town. The city's hauler, GreenWaste Recovery, brings local recyclable materials to its material-recovery facility in San Jose, where items are combined with tossed goods from other communities, separated by type and baled. The materials are then marketed to brokers, who ship them off to various destinations around the world.
When the City Council signed its most recent agreement with GreenWaste, council members made it clear that they would like the hauler to track the final destination of the city's recyclables so as to avoid shipments to places with poor environmental or human rights records. GreenWaste was charged with requesting information from its purchasers about the disposition of local recyclable materials. The hauler was also required to analyze this information and, relying on credible media reports from the nations that receive local materials, assess if there's any risk of environmental and human rights violations associated with waste operations.
To date, however, GreenWaste has failed to meet the council's expectations. Its most recent report, which was released this month, states that some of the brokers claim they don't know where local materials are going. Others know but don't want to tell. Others seemingly don't want to know.
At one point, GreenWaste explored the option of placing GPS units in bales of materials, a project it pursued after discussions with the Ecology Center in Berkeley. The hauler said that after discussing this option with brokers, the brokers made it clear that they don't want the GPS bales in their units and that if tracking units are found, bales may be returned to the sender, which GreenWaste states comes at "a great cost."
Despite the lack of information, most of the local materials continue to get exported, much of it to destinations unknown. GreenWaste reported that about 61% of the 164,651 tons that it recovered from local recycled material in 2021 went abroad, while 39% went to domestic markets. GreenWaste reported that 100% of the paper it received was exported, as well as 95% of all rigid plastic and film plastic.
The biggest questions pertain to cardboard. GreenWaste recovered 67,593 tons of cardboard from local recycling bins, making it by far the largest category of materials. It exported 95% of its cardboard, working through brokers such as Novato-based CellMark Inc., Orange-based Newport CH International and Berg Mill Supply, which is based in Los Angeles. All three of these companies declined to disclose where the cardboard goes.
OGO Fibers, which is based in Canada, was somewhat more forthcoming, reporting that the cardboard it gets from GreenWaste goes to Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Korea and India. The brokerage Super Link Plastic, which is based in Oakland, also sells to all of these nations, as well as to Indonesia and Taiwan.
While some of it goes to Asian nations such as India, Thailand and Malaysia, much goes to destinations unknown. With few exceptions, brokers have not been forthcoming about where the waste goes next. And GreenWaste acknowledges in the new report that the haulers dealing with these brokers have not been keen on pressing the issue.
The report from GreenWaste claims that the life cycle of commodities is "extremely difficult to track" and, given the current state of the market, brokers are "not in a position to place requirements on customers."
"Moreover, information on commodity markets, pricing, buyers and other information pertaining to commodity sales transactions constitute confidential and proprietary corporate Trade Secrets," the GreenWaste report states.
Both GreenWaste and its brokers, the report claims, "stand to be harmed by the disclosure of Trade Secrets." This could include losing markets for specific materials such as clamshells or film plastics, losing some markets and "jeopardizing relationships with buyers, with the potential to lose business."
The problem of tracing the destination of local trash became more acute in 2018, when longtime purchaser China closed off its market to almost all recyclable goods, leaving many nations, states and cities scrambling for new markets. The uncertainty in the market, as well as questionable labor and environmental practices in new markets, prompted the council to adopt the new tracing policy. Just before the council voted in 2019 to approve the new GreenWaste contract, with the traceability provisions, City Manager Ed Shikada said that he believes Palo Alto is "really breaking new ground in taking responsibility for what really is an international crisis."
GreenWaste argues in the new report that the task has proved all but impossible for some of the material that gets shipped abroad. At the same time, it has been able to find domestic markets for other materials, including for 100% of locally recycled aluminum cans, aluminum foil, tin and glass. It also has found domestic markets for 99% of local high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic (which is commonly used for milk jugs and shampoo bottles), as well as for 99% of polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic (the type that is often used for soft drink bottles).
In its report, GreenWaste offered other ideas for ensuring that local waste is diverted from landfills. One proposal is a pilot project in which mixed paper is shredded and composted. Another is creating a process for GreenWaste and the city to quickly responding to availability of domestic processors, even at a higher cost. Yet another calls for exploring gasification for diapers and problematic plastics, a process that would convert these materials to natural gas (to date, the technology has been cost-prohibitive, according to the hauler).
The city is also considering alternative strategies. A new report from the Public Works Department acknowledges that given the lack of information from GreenWaste and its brokers, "it is not possible to definitively determine whether the materials are being recycled properly or whether they may be causing environmental or social problems." In response, staff is having conversations with other cities that have their recyclable materials processed at the GreenWaste facility about "requesting greater accounting of secondary markets utilized for recyclable materials."
"Initial feedback is that the majority of jurisdictions do not have recycling traceability requirements within their contracts but are interested in either joining a discussion forum or minimally being informed of Palo Alto's progress," the report states.
The city is also communicating with local legislators about developing policies that would require tracking of recyclable materials. This could involve creating a certification process to verify that recyclables are actually recycled and to "keep recyclables within the United States where laws and regulations can protect the environment and human health."