Palo Alto poised to embark on trash experiment | December 14, 2012 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

News - December 14, 2012

Palo Alto poised to embark on trash experiment

Envisioning a garbage-free future, city's proposed pilot program aims to revamp system for collecting waste

by Gennady Sheyner

Those black carts filled with trash may soon disappear from the curbside of one Palo Alto neighborhood as part of the city's proposed experiment with food scraps and other organic waste.

The City Council is scheduled to consider Monday a new pilot program in which all waste would be sorted into two carts — a green one for compostable waste and household food scraps and a blue one for everything else. The year-long program would launch in March in a neighborhood to be determined. If successful, it could later be extended to all other residential neighborhoods.

The pilot program represents a radical departure from the city's traditional waste-collection model, which separates recyclable waste from the non-recyclable variety and does not include a separate service for food waste.

According to a new report from the Public Works Department, staff has "identified the collection of food waste and other compostable materials as the optimal way to reduce collection frequency and also help the city achieve our goals of zero waste and reducing gas emissions." The department estimates that by collecting residential food scraps and food-soiled paper, 6,000 tons of material could be diverted from landfills and converted into compost.

The report notes that the pilot program would create a "different paradigm than what is in place now." Specifically, it would shift the onus for separating recyclable from non-recyclable waste from residents to regional "material-recovery facilities" known in the industry by their acronym MRFs (rhymes with "smurfs").

"Instead of residents sorting the recyclables and non-compostable garbage at home, non-compostable garbage is separated from the recyclables at a sorting facility," the report states. "Currently, there are no communities in the Bay Area that have implemented this type of program."

Residential waste would continue to get collected weekly and shipped to the regional Sunnyvale Material Recovery and Transfer (SMaRT) Station for sorting. The contents of the green carts would proceed to the Z-Best Composting Facility in Gilroy, where food scraps and yard trimmings would be composted in separate units, producing different types of compost.

The blue bins would include recyclable items and garbage that cannot be recycled, including dental floss, hygiene products and pet waste. The landfill-bound waste would be separated from the recyclables at the GreenWaste facility in San Jose.

Staff is looking to launch the experiment in a neighborhood that has about 700 homes; clear neighborhood boundaries; and an "existing and active neighborhood association with a strong outreach presence." City officials would hold community meetings with the selected neighborhood and provide them with a pilot "tool kit," including a kitchen container for food scraps, some compostable bags and a guide instructing residents on which items belong in which carts, according to the new report.

At an Oct. 2 meeting, members of the council's Finance Committee considered several different options for a pilot program, including one that would reduce the frequency that landfill-bound garbage would be collected while keeping weekly pick-ups of recyclable and compostable items.

The committee instead favored the two-bin option, with Vice Mayor Greg Scharff saying he preferred a system that is "simple, convenient and easy" for users.

If the council approves the program, it would start in March and continue for a full year, after which time staff would consider whether the new system is cost effective and convenient and evaluate how much more material had been diverted from landfills.

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner can be emailed at


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