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February 23, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Zeroing in on waste Zeroing in on waste (February 23, 2005)

Council's recent decision to nix Environmental Services Center redirects attention to zero-waste dream for Palo Alto

by Jocelyn Dong

While Palo Altans' interest has focused the past year on debates over single-stream recycling and the Environmental Services Center -- the latter of which the City Council killed last week -- a policy sure to change the lives of residents and businesspeople slipped in last November almost without notice.

Called "zero waste," it's a far-reaching environmental philosophy that aims to reduce the city's trash flow from 61,000 tons a year to almost nothing.

An impossible dream? Maybe, but cities and counties throughout the nation are daring to envision such a trash-free future. Last fall, the City Council decided Palo Alto should join that growing group.

The key principle of zero waste is simple enough. Rather than thinking of goods as flowing along a stream from manufacturing to consumers to landfill, followers of zero-waste see materials as cycling through an endless loop.

Once something is used, it is re-used, recycled, recovered or repaired. Athletic shoes might be ground up and the material employed to make football fields, tennis and basketball courts, or running tracks. Food scraps can be composted or processed into animal feed. Wood from demolished houses can be donated to a resource-recovery center, where construction firms buy it for a new project.

"There has to be a sea-change in thinking," said Bud Mission, director of site services for Roche Biosciences in Palo Alto and co-chair of the city's Zero Waste Task Force, charged with developing a zero-waste plan of action. As a company, Roche has been pursuing zero-waste since 1997, and expects by year-end to send only about 10 percent of its waste to landfill.

In the grand scheme of Palo Alto's waste, businesses produce about two-thirds of the city's trash. Therefore, any zero-waste policy will have to motivate, cajole or at worst force businesses to get onto the bandwagon.

Large companies are leading the way. At Roche, outdated research equipment, such as microscopes or balance scales, are donated to universities and schools. Vast expanses of lawn on the company's 70-acre campus have been replaced by water-conserving landscaping.

Surplus office equipment likewise is made available to teachers or held in inventory for future use, a fact of which Mission is proud.

"We bought one new desk in the past five years," he said.

When a new building was constructed at Roche to temporarily store hazardous waste materials, 95 percent of the old warehouse was recycled into other projects, Mission said. A skylight was transplanted onto a landscaper's maintenance shed. Doors were redeployed to other buildings. A recycling company hauled away the wood and concrete.

It may be a subtle distinction, but zero waste is not just a matter of figuring out what to do with used up materials; the philosophy encourages using less raw materials in the first place.

For residents, that may mean developing a habit of shopping at second-hand stores. For businesses, it could mean figuring out how to manufacture with plastics and metals that were milk jugs and washing machines in previous lives.

"We want it to be a cyclical process where the materials come back in some form. That's what we're talking about with sustainability," Mission said.

With the universe of zero-waste options being as great as it is, how will Palo Alto create a manageable and cost-effective plan?

As a result of the council's adoption of a zero-waste policy, a task force co-chaired by Mission and environmentalist Walt Hays has been convened. Open to interested parties, more than 35 members representing businesses, environmentalists, youth, the city and schools have joined.

According to Hays, the group will survey the city's stakeholders -- apartment owners, business owners, residents and more -- in coming months. Meanwhile, renowned zero-waste consultant Gary Liss has been retained by the city and will work with staff to develop some options, which will then be presented to stakeholders for feedback. Hays hopes to have a zero-waste plan to be ready by summer.

In a town known for its penchant for the new new thing, could a zero-waste philosophy really take off?

Mission and Hays acknowledge there could be challenges, from small businesses not having the space to store surplus office equipment for later use to residents who would rather trash an item than drive to a recycling center or second-hand shop.

"The more inconvenient you make it for people, the less likely they are to do it," Hays.

Mission agreed. "You've got to get people to embrace the concept, because they may look at it from the standpoint of the convenience factor -- instead of 'I'll consciously make the effort to make it in this bucket to make sure it gets to the right place,'" he said. "That speaks to individual motivation and philosophy over what it means to do the right thing."

Education will likely be a major component of the zero-waste strategy. The city will have to figure out how to motivate people to participate -- either through the carrot or the stick. Higher fees for trash collection, for example, could also be used.

The good news is that 90 percent of residents already recycle 12 times a year or more, according to a city auditor's report.

"I'm optimistic," said Michael Closson, executive director of the environmental group Acterra and a member of the task force. "A lot of this stuff is already in place."

He cited innovative programs like Freecycle Network, an Internet Web site that allows people to exchange used items for free, as one example of Palo Alto residents' enthusiasm for moving towards zero-waste.

As to when Palo Alto may be waste-free, Mission acknowledges it's a long-term effort. San Francisco adopted its zero-waste policy in 2000, and aims to be at the goal by 2020.

"Intermediate goals -- from 60-75 percent -- are achievable in the mid-time frame (of) five to 10 years," he said. "It took us a generation in Palo Alto -- we started recycling in 1977 -- to get from nothing to 55-60 percent. It is not unreasonable to believe will take another generation to get to zero waste."

Senior Staff Writer Jocelyn Dong can be reached at

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