Palo Alto takes pride in its record on recycling, but the city's recent efforts to track materials as they make their way from blue bins and onto ships to Asia and Mexico have been a glaring failure.
Despite the city's requirement that its hauler, GreenWaste of Palo Alto, issue annual reports describing where the roughly 14,000 tons of local recyclable material goes, the company's accounts have been vague and incomplete, raising more questions than they answer. With brokers dominating the murky market, GreenWaste reported in January that information about the final destination of exported recyclable materials is difficult to track and often safeguarded from disclosure. The brokers and GreenWaste, the company reported in January, "stand to be harmed" by these disclosures because they would lose markets for some materials and jeopardize relationships with buyers.
Given the difficulty of extracting information, Palo Alto is preparing for a big pivot from international markets, which received about 61% of local materials in recent years, to domestic ones. Concerned about the environmental and human rights impact that recyclable shipments have on communities abroad, the city this year began a pilot program that would ship local mixed paper to a mill in Louisiana and that would send mixed rigid plastics — which include crates, buckets and toys — to Chino and Jurupo Valley in southern California.
If approved by the City Council, which is set to consider it on June 6, the program would extend a three-month pilot program that the city launched in April for the entire fiscal year 2023. It would effectively curb most overseas shipments of local recyclable goods to nations such as India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, said Phil Bobel, who retired as assistant director at the Department of Public Works and who is working with the Zero Waste Team to launch the new program.
Bobel said in an interview that the program makes sure that almost all recycled materials apart from cardboard will be shipped to domestic destinations. Palo Alto's recycled paper would go to Pratt Industries, a company in Shreveport, Louisiana, where it would be mixed with pulp from trees and reused as paper. That would be a sharp break from past practices, where 100% of the city's mixed paper was exported. The city is generating about 3,500 tons of mixed paper in the current fiscal year and the number is projected to increase to 3,800 tons in 2023, according to Bobel.
Mixed plastics, meanwhile, would go to two plastic manufacturers in southern California, Envision Plastics in Chino and PreZero Plastics in Jurupa Valley. The material there gets broken down into nurdles — tiny plastic beads — that are then used to create new plastic products, Bobel said.
"We're very excited about this," Bobel said. "It's a great opportunity for us to be one of the first communities to keep everything except cardboard domestic. Then we'll know where it's going."
Cardboard will continue to get shipped abroad through brokers such a Novato-based CellMark, Los Angeles-based Berg Mill Supply and Orange-based Newport CH International, which have not been providing cardboard traceability data to GreenWaste. The city is less worried about cardboard than about other materials, Bobel said, because the material represents very good feedstock for paper plants and, as such, is very unlikely to create environmental and social problems in developing nations.
Keeping mixed plastics and mixed paper domestic will come at a cost. The pilot program for fiscal year 2023, which begins on July 1, would require about $1.2 million in extra costs, money that the council will be asked to authorize on June 6. Bobel said the money would be shifted from the city's reserves and would not require rate increases in the coming year, though it may impact rates in 2024. Bobel said city staff hope that costs will be mitigated in future years by the expansion of the domestic market for recyclable materials.
"Our real hope is that the prices drop dramatically — that more U.S. markets emerge and more entrepreneurs realize that this needs to occur in the U.S., that there are people who will pay money to keep it in U.S," Bobel said.
The problem of tracking the destination of recyclable goods became pronounced in the aftermath of China's ban in 2018 on nearly all foreign waste. With the market in flux, many nations directed their plastic waste to ad hoc dumps and landfills in countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.
Bob Wenzlau, who pioneered Palo Alto's recycling program, called the city's move to reduce how much waste is shipped abroad is a good step but argued that much more needs to be done to make sure recyclable goods are sustainably disposed of. Given the difficulty of tracking recyclable materials that go abroad and finding a domestic market for cardboard, the city should consider an alternative that would surprise many environmentalists: putting it in landfills.
From an environmental standpoint, landfilling may actually be the superior alternative, he said, because of the large amount of waste, energy and wastewater that recycling generates. He noted in a letter that about 25% of cardboard is disposed of in the recycling process. Neither the solid or liquid residuals are managed to U.S. environmental standards and the solids often go to communities with "exploitive picking operations," he wrote in a letter to the city.
Materials that get shipped to unknown destinations in southeast Asia crosses a "red line" the expectations of the Palo Alto community.
"We want to make sure we're on the domestic side of the red line," Wenzlau said. "If at some point someone shows us that they're doing a great job with the recycling processes in Asia, then all is good and to me that red line goes away. So far, we don't know."
The city, however, is not keen to revert to landfilling. Bobel said that putting local waste in landfills would put the city into noncompliance with various state regulations. Furthermore, as material in landfills breaks down, the process releases greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, he said.
"I think what it points to is more focus on reducing, more focus on reusing — so that the materials don't have to be destroyed and remade again, which is what recycling does," Wenzlau said. "We always say reduce, reuse, recycle. What we're learning is that recycling is not as benign as we think."
Wenzlau and Bobel both said, however, that the best way to address waste disposal is to make sure that recycled materials get reused after they get hauled out. City staff is confident that the new program achieves that, particularly when it comes to mixed paper, Bobel said.
"This is actually one of the best opportunities for true recycling because you're taking fiber and you're making fiber," Bobel said. "Here's an opportunity with a pulp and paper mill to retain fiber and make new paper."