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November 19, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, November 19, 2004

Council to recycle decision on recycling Council to recycle decision on recycling (November 19, 2004)

While cities throughout Bay Area have already chosen, Palo Alto still debates

by Jocelyn Dong

When it comes to recycling, both Mark Bowers and Kevin Drew proclaim themselves "hard core."

"I'm an old-line recycler," said Drew, the residential and special-projects recycling coordinator for the city and county of San Francisco. He was doing it even before it became politically correct.

Both Drew and Bowers, the solid-waste program manager for the city of Sunnyvale, also share a common vision for the world. They hope one day to see almost everything that people use either recycled or reused -- not thrown into a landfill.

But there's a difference between the two and their cities -- a distinction the Palo Alto City Council will debate Monday night. In Drew's San Francisco, residents casually toss all of their recyclables into a single bin for curbside pickup. In Sunnyvale, where Bowers is solid-waste program manager, residents segregate their old newspapers from the other recyclable goods -- so-called "dual-stream" recycling.

The difference may not seem like a big deal, but it could cost Palo Alto hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. And the issue raised enough contention back in May that the City Council split, like a dual-stream recycling cart, on their vote: 5-4 in favor of adopting the all-in-one program.

Then last week, Council member LaDoris Cordell asked the single-stream decision be reopened, after learning that it carried a price tag of at least $647,000 a year more than the city's current four-crate recycling approach. Cordell, who had voted for single-stream, said the costs had not been clearly spelled out by staff in May.

Palo Alto was one of the first cities in the nation to institute a curbside recycling program in 1978. These days, it is playing catch up with municipalities throughout the Bay Area that have already launched into the next era of curbside recycling.

Like Palo Alto today, Sunnyvale in 2001 had to make a decision about a new recycling program when its old method started showing signs of age. The crates residents used to sort their recyclables were breaking down, as they are in Palo Alto.

For Bowers, the decision to go to a dual-stream program had a lot to do with the recycling habits of Sunnyvale residents, which he said were "mature." They had been recycling on the curbside since 1982 and were well-trained at sorting their newspapers, glass bottles, plastics, and more.

Going to a single-stream program "seemed to defy logic," because mixing newspapers in with glass would contaminate the newsprint and make it less valuable to paper mills, he said. Glass, when it breaks, leaves shards that get embedded into the paper.

In terms of weight, newspapers are the largest recyclable material that Sunnyvale collects from its residents. Paper mills in the United States pay top dollar for clean, recyclable newsprint, Bowers said, while overseas mills pay less for lower-quality paper.

Although the program is working for Sunnyvale -- Bower has seen a 25 percent increase in the tonnage that residents have recycled over the past three years -- the choice of a recycling program depends on a variety of factors, he said.

"It's very specific to communities," he said.

Cities must balance the needs of their residents against the needs of those who are buying the recycled materials.

The more a city has residents sort their recyclables, the higher quality of the recyclables. It is then easier to find a market for the materials, and more revenue is generated to the recycling program, Bowers said.

But the less a city requires residents to sort, the easier it is for them to participate and -- anecdotal evidence shows -- more materials get recycled. However, if the residents don't sort the materials, then machines -- and sometimes humans -- at the processing plant have to. Because of cross-contamination, the recycled goods will be of lower quality and buyers may less be interested, Bowers said.

Bowers takes exception to the idea that people participate more in single-stream recycling programs than dual-stream.

"I'm of the belief that it's the carts" that are boosting participation, not the all-in-one idea, he said. Sunnyvale also uses a single, wheeled cart, but splits it down the middle so newspapers get tossed in one side and glass and bottles in another.

As proud as Bowers is of the dual-stream choice, so is Drew of San Francisco's single-stream program. Instituted in 2000, the program has likewise seen a 25 increase in recycling.

The decision to go single-stream had a lot to do with the city's desire to expand its composting program, Drew said. Unlike suburban areas, San Francisco didn't have a robust program for yard waste, because residents don't have much yard space. But the city still wanted residents to divert "organics" -- yard clippings, food scraps and soiled paper -- from going to the landfill.

So it came up with the "Fantastic 3" program, in which residents receive one cart each for recyclables, compostables and garbage. The city obtained trucks that could collect garbage and recyclables at one time, putting them in separate compartments, and another truck for composting. Going to the dual-stream recycling program would have required yet another vehicle, which Drew said was not desirable due to San Francisco's narrow streets.

When it comes to contamination, Drew said he hasn't seen much of a problem.

"You have to work hard at the sorting side," he said, but they're still getting the same value out of the mixed newspaper as before, when residents sorted it. He said machinery can pull out the glass early in the sorting process.

Financially, there are tradeoffs to single- and dual-stream programs, although the exact costs vary by city.

The cost to collect single-stream materials is lower, because the trucks don't need to have a split compartment to store separate materials. However, sorting costs increase. Depending on whom you talk to, the money a city gets for its materials may or may not be lower with single stream.

Drew said the single-stream decision is costing San Francisco residents about 6 percent more than the previous program.

Bowers did not have figures on hand for the dual-stream program, but he considered the operating costs to be "pretty low."

National studies of the two types of recycling programs show an industry in flux, as municipalities are only beginning to measure the results, and engineers continue to introduce new technologies to improve the sorting abilities of the machines.

As in all cities, Palo Alto's recycling decision will have long-term ramifications. The city already partners with Sunnyvale's SMaRT station, a waste and recycling facility, and could ship its recyclables there -- but only if it adopts a dual-stream program. Otherwise, it would have to contract with a company that has a single-stream plant, such as Waste Management Inc., which currently processes the recyclables for the few neighborhoods in Palo Alto's pilot single-stream program.

Or, Palo Alto could build its own processing facility. A proposed, and controversial, 19-acre Environmental Services Center in the Baylands would fit that bill, and will be the subject of council discussions Monday.

Revisiting the recycling decision has upset Palo Alto's city staff, who have been trying to implement the program since May.

In the broader scope of the environment, the council also agreed this past Monday to adopt a zero-waste policy, in keeping with the California Integrated Waste Management Act that has set goals for communities throughout the state.

Senior Staff Writer Jocelyn Dong can be reached at

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