The challenge was inspired by a recent map published by the City of Palo Alto's Zero Waste program, which showed mini-can usage by neighborhood, Midtown Green Team member Debbie Mytels said. The city challenged the community to achieve a rate of 50 percent mini-cans.
Grassroots environmental teams work on projects that reduce people's carbon footprint, so a campaign that would help reduce methane and carbon dioxide from garbage seemed a perfect fit. When she learned the Palo Verde neighborhood just to the south of Midtown came in first at 37 percent, Mytels' competitive spirit was fired up.
"Midtown can do better than that!" she said.
Mytels and Lisa Altieri, Palo Alto Green Teams organizer, came up with the mini-can challenge, which launched on Earth Day, April 22, she said.
"We came up with the idea that it would be cool to challenge our neighborhoods to see which one could get to the 50 percent mini-can usage first. Our motivation? Just basic neighborhood pride — and a desire to get more people into using mini-cans," said Mytels, who is the program developer for local nonprofit group Acterra.
Palo Alto has considerable garbage that could be recycled. According to the city's Zero Waste website, approximately 43 percent of city garbage is recyclable. Paper alone comprises 14 percent, or 11, 200 tons.
Switching to mini-cans saves a household $203.52 annually, according to Palo Alto Neighborhood (PAN) Green Team organizers. Mini-can garbage service costs $15.90 per month; regular 32-gallon can service costs $32.86 per month.
Mytels said her household has used the mini-can for about three years. The can is actually a regular 32-gallon receptacle with an insert that lowers the capacity to 20 gallons.
"We've been happy and saving money ever since," she said.
Switching to a mini can potentially has an added environmental benefit. Some residents use the savings to sign up for PaloAltoGreen, the city's renewable-energy program that supplies power from 100 percent wind and solar sources.
Anne Schmitt of College Terrace said her neighborhood green team's meeting Wednesday highlighted the challenge. Group members were doing a trial canvassing of the neighborhood, she said.
Last month, the group arranged a tour of the transfer center for the city garbage company, GreenWaste. Residents saw first hand en masse what Palo Altans put in the trash.
"The amount of plastic bags people throw away — the ones we get when we buy broccoli — that were on the GreenWaste conveyer belt was huge," she said.
At the College Terrace Residents' Association annual picnic, a neighbor's worm bin was the biggest hit, she said. At the end of the picnic, the worms got the ends of hamburger buns and other scraps.
College Terrace resident Ute Engelke regularly feeds her 5,000 head of worm "livestock" everything from table scraps to old blue jeans. All of her household trash has fit in a 1-gallon bucket for years, she said. Years before the city offered a mini-can and recycling, Engelke said she wrote "mini-can" on the lid of her covered bucket so trash collectors would pick it up.
She's since switched to the city's 20-gallon can, but it takes at least a month before she has enough trash to put it curbside, she said.
Engelke said she adds the blue jeans without cutting them up. The worms devour them with gusto.
"It takes maybe three months to eat up. Only the zippers stay behind and the seams made with polyester," she said.
Barron Park has a good chance of winning the competition, Altieri said. Barron Park's team "just grabbed onto this. They are going gangbusters, canvassing the neighborhood, dropping off fliers to everyone with 32-gallon cans, holding house visits to help people learn how to reduce their waste," she said.
The Green Team created a survey about the mini-can service that went out to residents in April. Altieri said she is talking to Palo Alto Mayor Sid Espinosa about a possible recognition award from the city for the winning neighborhood — something beyond the bragging rights.
Mark Georgia, Barron Park Green Team committee member, said he is ready for the challenge.
"Our Barron Park Green Team is throwing down the gauntlet and invites all neighborhoods in Palo Alto to accept the challenge," he said.
Georgia said the Barron Park group counted how many residents use mini cans. They leave information about the fiscal and environmental savings under the doormats of residents who use larger bins, he said.
Reducing the level of trash isn't difficult, once one becomes mindful of recycling and making good purchases based on less packaging, he said.
"For years, we have had a mini-can. It's gotten so that most weeks we don't even have half a can of garbage," Georgia, an avid gardener who composts kitchen scraps, said.
"If you have a garden, there's all that packaging that won't go in the garbage."
"I've been a recycler since the days of burlap bags — and a backyard composter since the '70s, too. Even when there were five of us in the house, we never needed more than one 32-gallon can. So much more can be recycled now than it could when my kids were growing up. If people follow the recycling guidelines, even if they have a larger family, many can get by with using a mini can," she said.
Residents who want to switch to the mini-can service can call GreenWaste at 650-493-4894 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. A backlog could mean waiting for a month or more, Mytels said.
The mini-can progress report is updated quarterly and is available at www.cityofpaloalto.org by going to the Zero Waste home page and clicking on "Progress Report" under the "Interact with us" menu.