The city is considering asking its waste hauler, GreenWaste of Palo Alto, to pick up organic waste from residents in single-family homes, according to a new report from the Public Works Department. Under GreenWaste's existing contract, which went into effect in 2007, residents' yard trimmings are collected weekly, but the company only collects organic waste from commercial customers.
If the changes were to take effect, GreenWaste would allow residents to throw away their food scraps and other compostable materials into designated bins. The organic material would then be separated from yard trimmings at a transfer station in Sunnyvale or San Jose and composted at either the ZBest facility in Gilroy or elsewhere.
But if this were to happen, garbage collection would become less frequent, according to Ron Arp, the city's manager of Environmental Control Programs.
Arp wrote that garbage frequency could be reduced because a recent study showed that more than 75 percent of the average garbage cart contents were "divertable" — that is, either compostable or recyclable. Thus, on average, less than 25 percent of the garbage-cart material is "true garbage."
"Theoretically, once residents begin diverting all compostable organic material to the green bin and recyclable material to the blue bin, it would take four weeks to fill up the garbage cart," Arp wrote.
The city is currently in the midst of renegotiating its contract with GreenWaste. On Tuesday night, the City Council's Finance Committee will consider two alternative pilot programs — one that would reduce garbage collection to once or twice a month and another one that would eliminate it entirely.
The new report notes that staff has previously "viewed the collection and processing of expanded organic residential wastes as a service that would significantly increase costs."
"However, if the new expanded organic waste collection program could be implemented in conjunction with reduced garbage service levels, then the additional costs could be much smaller or could even yield cost savings."
Arp notes that the city has received "numerous requests from Palo Alto residents" for the food scrap service. Some residents already compost such waste at home, he noted, but despite an outreach efforts by the city to promote local composting, "there (is) still a significant amount of compostable waste" thrown into the garbage.
The pilot project, under the staff proposal, would target a specific Palo Alto neighborhood. Staff would reach out to those residents, before starting the program, with mailings, a neighborhood meeting and door-hangers. During the one-year pilot project, staff would evaluate the program's costs, residents' responses, the amount of waste materials collected and ways in which food scraps are separated from yard trimmings. The Public Works Department will also consider whether the program reduces the overall number of miles traveled by the collection trucks. The program could begin the pilot program as soon as early 2013. After it ends, staff and the council will consider whether to extend the food-scrap collection program throughout the city.
If implemented, the proposed service changes would be the latest in a series of dramatic shifts to the city's waste-collection program in recent years. The city has recently revamped how it charges customers to emphasize "fixed rates" that everyone pays over "variable rates" that fluctuate based on the amount of garbage. In July, the city began tacking on a monthly $6.66 fee for street sweeping, a $2.17 fee for the annual clean-up day and a $1.07 fee for the household-hazardous-waste program to each bill.
The city is also in the midst of evaluating a proposal to build an anaerobic digestion plant at Byxbee Park in the Baylands. The facility could convert yard trimmings, food scraps and other organic waste into energy. Palo Alto residents voted last year to "undedicate" a 10-acre portion of the park so the concept of a waste-to-energy plant could be explored.