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November 24, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Council sticks to single-stream recycling Council sticks to single-stream recycling (November 24, 2004)

Method hailed as wave of the future

by Jocelyn Dong

Palo Alto residents will toss their recyclables into a single, wheeled bin after all, come next July.

In an emotional Monday night meeting, the City Council affirmed its May decision to abandon the current four-crate curbside recycling program in favor of the so-called "single-stream" method.

The decision pleased advocates, including the city's Public Works Department staff and residents participating in the city's pilot program who praised the convenience of the method. It disappointed and angered citizens who favored keeping the crate system or moving to an alternate method where newspapers would still be separated from the rest of the recyclables

"Palo Alto residents have done an excellent job of sorting their own recyclables. Individual homeowners take pride in sorting, recycling, and participating in this major environmental effort. By reverting to single stream, we're going backwards not forwards," said resident Jean Wilcox.

She complained that paper would get wet in a single-stream bin and contaminated with broken glass, making it "worthless" for recycling and ending up in the landfill.

Other residents, however, believed the options were equally good for the environment.

"I wouldn't be too tormented by this question," resident Bob Wenzlau told the council. He recalled the days when curbside recycling used burlap bags, and said the program would constantly change in the future, as it has in the past.

Council members queried city staff on various aspects of the program, including costs and environmental benefits. At times, some members offered conflicting information. Ultimately, however, the majority of the council seemed to be swayed by the opinion of Public Works staff that single-stream recycling would be the wave of the future, and that the machines sorting the recyclables would eventually improve to the point of keeping recycled goods from contaminating one another.

Mayor Bern Beecham asked city staff whether the single-stream recyclables, despite contamination, would fetch as much revenue in the marketplace as materials sorted by residents. Public Works Director Glenn Roberts said that recyclables from the pilot program brought in about 95 percent of the gross revenues as it had in the four-crate program.

The vote was 6-3, with Council members LaDoris Cordell, Hillary Freeman and Yoriko Kishimoto opposing the plan, citing the program's additional expenses and what they considered inopportune timing. Cordell had requested last week that the issue be reopened, after learning the program cost more than the present crate system.

Start-up costs for the single-stream method are estimated at $973,000. Ongoing costs are estimated at $672,000.

Also Monday night, the council heard from city staff about the proposed Environmental Services Center, a facility that could be built on the Baylands to sort the city's recyclables and garbage, prior to sending the waste to landfill. The two-hour study session covered everything from the city's contracts with waste management companies to the value of the rent that the city's Refuse Fund would pay on the 19 acres of land at the end of Embarcadero Road.

The topic has become so heated that discussion both in council chambers, and apparently in City Hall last week, grew touchy, a fact underscored by an emotional City Auditor Sharon Erickson Monday night. Erickson's report on the proposed center was released two weeks ago and called into question some of the figures that Public Works staff had presented to council earlier in the year.

"I feel this is important," Erickson told the council in a quavering voice, before pausing a moment to compose herself. "We have disagreements, but these don't need to be personalized."

But council member Judy Kleinberg, who had asked about the relationship between Public Works staff and the city's garbage contractor, Waste Management, Inc., said her intent was only to "dig as deeply as we can so we can get information on the record. ... No inferences should be drawn that we were critical of staff."

However, staff and council members did have their disagreements, which were evident during the meeting. Kleinberg had asked Public Works staff for information, including a cost-benefits analysis, which they were unable to provide Monday night. Staff recommended the council commission an environmental impact report to get the data. Somewhat disbelieving, Kleinberg asked whether the only way to get cost-benefits estimates would be to order a $442,000 report.

Yes, Roberts replied.

Meanwhile, Council member Jack Morton differed with Erickson over the costs of the proposed 19-acre center, which she estimated would be $8.5 million. Morton pointed out that certain expenses, such as rent, were under the city's control, thus the true cost of the center could be considered lower. But Erickson took exception to that calculation.

"The cost is the cost," Erickson replied. "It's the cost of the facility. I can't just offshore a cost."

The council is set to discuss the Environmental Services Center on Jan. 18, at which point they may decide on whether to commission the environmental report that would examine the 19-acre option, plus various alternatives.

In other council matters, a plan to bring traffic relief to the College Terrace neighborhood received the go-ahead Monday night. College Terrace is located near El Camino Real, next to Stanford University.

Residents there have been working for five years to develop a plan to install devices to slow traffic and reduce speeds. Their major streets include Stanford, College and California avenues. The $150,000 plan calls for traffic circles, raised crosswalks, and speed tables. The council approved a one-year trial of the devices, with assessments to determine their effects.

Senior Staff Writer Jocelyn Dong can be reached at

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