City won't riffle through people's trash — for now | May 14, 2010 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - May 14, 2010

City won't riffle through people's trash — for now

Palo Alto dumps plan to fine non-recyclers, opts for educational approach

by Gennady Sheyner

Palo Alto is backing off a controversial proposal to fine residents who flagrantly violate its sweeping new recycling ordinance.

The ordinance, which the Public Works Department staff is crafting, drew criticism earlier this spring after residents learned the city planned to enforce compliance through fines and suspending service.

Some residents grumbled about "garbage police" during public meetings and said they didn't want garbage collectors sifting through their trash.

Given the opposition, staff has opted to spend two years educating customers as its primary tool for reducing the amount of recyclable goods that residents dump into garbage containers, Public Works Director Glenn Roberts told the City Council's Policy and Services Committee Tuesday night.

"There has been expression of concern about privacy and 'garbage Gestapo,'" Roberts said. "It's clearly not our intent to go to that level."

Staff estimated that about 43 percent of the materials in local trash bins is actually recyclable.

The previous plan called for a year of educating residents, with enforcement following in the second year. Enforcement — triggered when more than one-tenth of the garbage receptacle is filled with recyclable goods — would have included several notices before the city issued a fine and, in the most extreme cases, suspended its garbage-collection service.

Staff's revised plan, which was presented to the committee Tuesday night, calls for education first. After two years, staff would evaluate the program's results and, if needed, return to the council to discuss a possible enforcement mechanism.

Even the education component, however, would entail some quick glances by garbage collectors into the containers they pick up. According to a new report from the Public Works Department, this is not any different from what garbage collectors do now.

"Garbage and recycling drivers currently perform a cursory visual check of garbage and recyclables containers to make sure they don't contain prohibited material (e.g. hazardous materials, contaminants in recycling carts)," the reports states. "If prohibited materials are observed, the collector leaves a tag describing the issue and the corrective action required.

"The feedback process for personalized education would merely be an extension of this current activity — garbage collectors will just look at what can be seen when they open the container to take it to the truck for dumping.

"It will not involve opening garbage bags or auditing garbage," the report adds in underlined text.

Commercial customers, meanwhile, would face greater pressure to comply, according to the new recycling ordinance. Staff estimated that only 55 percent of the city's commercial customers currently recycle and recommended creating a "compliance component" for these customers in the ordinance, which is expected to be reviewed by the City Council in late summer or early fall.

The compliance component for commercial customers would include four steps, including two notices, a fine of up to $50 and, ultimately, curtailing of garbage collection. Staff proposed focusing on education in the first year of the ordinance and implementing the enforcement mechanism for commercial customers in the second year.

The council committee was generally supportive of the staff proposal, with Chair Yiaway Yeh and Councilwoman Gail Price advocating more positive incentives for complying. Councilwoman Nancy Shepherd wondered if the enforcement component for residents could be put in place sooner.

But Rene Eyerly, the city's solid-waste manager, said the message staff received from city residents was clear: They do not want garbage collectors looking through their garbage and issuing tickets.

"We did back off because of so many people with strong concerns," Eyerly said. "They felt they still need more education."

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be e-mailed at


Posted by whiners, a resident of Barron Park
on May 12, 2010 at 3:23 pm

Our schools and roads are falling apart and the topic that brings out the most whiners is garbage?

Posted by Toady, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 12, 2010 at 5:34 pm

Finally - a good decision from Palo Alto government.

As for your previous comment, obviously you were completely oblivious to the whole Everyday Math fiasco.

Posted by Midtowner, a resident of Midtown
on May 12, 2010 at 11:27 pm

Too bad. Sounded like a productive plan.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on May 13, 2010 at 1:29 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

One of the problems with the existing, and proposed, "education" component is that the City does NOT know what they need to be teaching.

From the public meeting, my clear impression was that the staff members, being "true believers", saw the problem simply as persuading others to be as enlightened as they were -- hence the now-deferred focus on punishing non-compliance as misconduct.

However, what emerged at the meeting were several instances where people who were dedicated recyclers were making mistakes because the City was providing information that was readily misinterpreted. Example: saying that plastic must be "clean" was NOT about problems with contamination affecting the recovery process, but rather a issue of the percentage of non-plastics relative to the expectation of those purchasing the materials. Although the audience pointed out the impact of this misunderstanding, the need to address such did not seem to register with City staff.

Posted by anon, a resident of Monroe Park
on May 13, 2010 at 2:32 pm


Does that mean that it acceptable to recycle plastic peanut butter containers and bottles of lotion that have not been cleaned 100%? I've always wound up tossing them in the garbage because it takes so much water,etc. to clean them out.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on May 13, 2010 at 9:52 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

@ anon of Monroe Park:
My understanding from that meeting that less than 100% clean is acceptable, but they didn't mention what the threshold was. You should probably confirm that officially.

Posted by Anon., a resident of Crescent Park
on May 13, 2010 at 10:32 pm

I don't often fry food or use much cooking oil ... but I am wondering how one is supposed to get rid of cooking oil?

If we are going to get to the point where we are micromanaging people's garbage behavior, then we ought to have a simple bulletproof system that allows for all kinds of recycling.

How about batteries, fluorescent lights, electronic equipment.

The problem with all of this is that it is only done when someone can make a ton of money off it, then the cost for everyone excalates a lot and forever.

Just try doing some home repair and not having any way to get rid of things like sheetrock, or maybe even toxics like asbestos without paying a fortune.

It seems to me that it makes more sense to grandfather old junk, and to just put a tax on new pollution that pays in advance and builds in the cost of recycling into the purchase price. Also a carbon tax is a great idea too.

Posted by stretch, a resident of another community
on May 14, 2010 at 9:22 am

Sounds as though a lot of education is in order. It's really not that hard to recycle. Swedes are REQUIRED to recycle 75% of their garbage and do so as a matter of course, w/o whining.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on May 14, 2010 at 11:39 am

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

@stretch ("It's really not that hard to recycle"):

It's harder than the advocates think. One problem is that the policy is to not collect as recyclables anything for which there isn't a market:
1. Justification: Materials for which there is no market go to a landfill, but there is an added transportation step and costs of sorting (sorting has a carbon footprint).
2. Disadvantage: Hard for people to keep current on what is and isn't recyclable.

The City staff proposal on "education" is to put out more brochures on what is recyclable. Various residents pointed out that for many/most folks, this is ineffective because such is not convenient to reference--typically, it gets filed away, never to be found. I pointed out that such paper media is likely to be immediately recycled :-). Staff is also considering distributing stickers to be attached to the recycling bins that would list this information, which has the advantage of being a convenient reference. The basic problem is: How many people would attach the sticker to their bin? And how do you _effectively_ handle updates?

My experience is that the dismissive attitude of the advocates ("it's not hard ...") is a major impediment to effective solutions.

Posted by George, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on May 14, 2010 at 1:21 pm

Put your cooking oil in your Biodiesel converted car of course! Give me a break.

Posted by stretch, a resident of another community
on May 14, 2010 at 6:34 pm

Gee,Doug - try hanging the pamphlet somewhere where it can be referred to while recycling (mine hangs on my recycling bin). It's not hard to recycle if you just do the stuff that is accepted NOW, instead of trying to figure out why other things aren't recyclable. Your attitude, calling me dismissive, is what keeps people from doing the simplest of things - they are just too busy whining about it to actually do it! I repeat: it is not that hard.

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on May 15, 2010 at 4:05 am

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

I love the irony in your posting, especially since it seems unintentional.
To demonstrate that you aren't being dismissive, you dismiss reports that other people -- well-intentioned, intelligent people -- have problems with the current arrangements by simply stating that _you_ don't have that problem. Alternate explanation: [Portion removed due to disrespectful comment or offensive language] you can't conceive that others might be different from you.

1. You claim that "Your attitude, calling me dismissive, is what keeps people from doing the simplest of things". Can you provide an estimate of how many people who have been "doing the simplest of things" will now be stopped from doing so because of my comment posted here? I feel so guilty. I was just trying to get people to think about how to make things simpler to boost compliance.

2. Your claim that it-is-simple is apparently based on your belief that you are recycling correctly. How do you know that you aren't making mistakes based upon a misunderstanding similar to the ones reported above? Did you have your garbage and recyclables audited by an expert? Who, and how many weeks of auditing did it take for you to get certified?

3. [Portion removed due to disrespectful comment or offensive language] Although carbon-offsets are well-known, I was not aware of landfill-offsets. Where do you buy yours?

Posted by Stupid Idiot Palo Altans, a resident of College Terrace
on May 15, 2010 at 5:44 am

I thought we paid 5 cent CRV for the guy who does the sorting - now after this CRV charge we are also going to be fined. WHAT????

The problem is that when the Garbage collection/disposal is not centralized for the entire Bay Area, CRV is not sufficient to pay salaries for so many sorters.

But YEAH!!!! Palo Alto wants to run its own Garbage dump and YIPPIEE!!!!! it also wants to run its own composting.

Posted by stretch, a resident of another community
on May 15, 2010 at 8:12 am

[Portion removed due to disrespectful comment or offensive language] I recycle what I can and actually call the recyclers and ask questions if I don't understand, or it's not clear. It's better to recycle something rather than sit on your hands and blame not being able to do it on a filed brochure!

You weren't rrying to make it simpler so that people could comply - you were thinking of all the reasons that you couldn't possibly comply.


Posted by JQPublic, a resident of Crescent Park
on May 15, 2010 at 8:39 am

Why do we need to employ staff to muse on how clean spent peanut butter jars or yogurt cups must be?

Posted by Douglas Moran, a resident of Barron Park
on May 15, 2010 at 3:52 pm

Douglas Moran is a registered user.

JQPublic [Portion removed due to disrespectful comment or offensive language]

1. His second posting is "Why do we need to employ staff to muse on how clean spent peanut butter jars or yogurt cups must be?" in response to "...plastic must be "clean" was NOT about problems with contamination affecting the recovery process, but rather a issue of the percentage of non-plastics relative to the expectation of those purchasing the materials." His reading comprehension is so minimal that he didn't understand the requirements came from the purchasers, not City staff.

2. He attributes what I reported about others as being my own situation (re brochures). This inability to distinguish the two classifies him as less intelligent than a cat or dog. My recollection is that most adults can readily handle 4-6 levels of indirection ("John said Mary said ...") and many species of animals have demonstrated the ability to handle at least 1-2.

3. He advocates telephoning the recycling staff when there is a question about whether something is recyclable rather than having an improved easily accessed reference that can be cheaply distributed. He doesn't think about the obvious costs (carbon footprint) of this and the impracticality of scaling up to the whole city.

4. Based upon my statement "... dedicated recyclers ... mistakes ... misinterpreted", he (and "stretch" before him) posit the absurd situation that people who have been recycling paper, cans and many types of plastic would stop recycling all those materials because I pointed out that those people expressed uncertainty about when an individual piece of plastic was clean enough.

5. Based upon my knowledge of recycling issues, my knowledge of others' difficulties and confusions, my attendance at meetings and my making suggestions on how to improve recycling rates, "JQPublic" (incorrectly) infers that I don't recycle.

6. JQPublic believes that I somehow need to put in all the above effort to find an excuse to not recycle.

Posted by Sonny, a resident of College Terrace
on May 16, 2010 at 3:36 pm

JQ Public

I think Mr. Moran was answering both you and Stretch in his post.

Posted by wondering, a resident of Midtown
on May 16, 2010 at 5:47 pm

I am a rather obsessive recycler, always making sure that things are clean. Now, I find out that the common meaning of "clean" does not apply here, and only refers to the specialized industrial definition meaning "plastics only." So when does my PB jar stop being recyleable and become trash? Only, Palo Alto, don't set up a special task force to figure this out, please!

Posted by Bob Smith, a resident of Midtown
on May 19, 2010 at 12:04 pm

I live in an apartment and our cans are unmarked. No way for the Garbage Nazis to determine who is non-compliant. I did however, separate trash and recyclables only to find a tag indicating the blue can wasn't 3/4 full. If my trash is no longer picked-up, can I also eliminate the natural gas? You want to go green?

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