Buckets of changes | News | Palo Alto Online |

Real Estate

Buckets of changes

Residents adapt to new food-scrap collection program

After prepping a meal, Laura Woodrow snaps down the lids of her kitchen pail, sealing in her food scraps. This countertop container allows her to gather her compostable waste inside before adding it to the larger green bin she hauls to the curb.

Once her small kitchen pail is full and dumped, the contents avoid the landfill and instead travel to an anaerobic digester to produce power and finished compost. The City of Palo Alto expects to divert about 3,000 tons of food scraps per year through this new initiative.

"I don't think they look bad on the counter top," said Woodrow, a Barron Park resident. "This pail is pretty easy."

The kitchen pails made their way to households in June after City Council approved a $387,000 budget for pails and outreach materials back in March. Besides the initial bill, the waste-management changes cost approximately $532,000 per year. The new program, which started on July 1, allows residents to add food scraps to the green bin. Because of the content change, waste is now delivered to the Zero Waste Energy Development Co.'s anaerobic digestion facility in San Jose instead of the Z-Best Composting Facility in Gilroy.

As residents move their compostable waste from black to green bins, they have experienced some foul moments, but have learned to adjust their habits. In Woodrow's case, she started using compostable bags inside of her kitchen pail. While she admits that it feels silly to roll out the green bin every week with one small bag sitting at the bottom, she wants to avoid the smell, mess and potential scavengers.

"Especially on the green bin, the food scraps would cake on the inside," she said. "It was just really gross."

Nicolette Heaphy, Children's Garden coordinator at Hidden Villa, said compostable bags make for easy cleanup and can be found at most local home goods stores. She recommends that residents read the label to ensure the bag is specifically intended for compost. She reminds residents to be cautious when removing the bag from their pail. If scraps sit in a bag too long, the entire bundle will start to decompose, which may cause the bag to break. She recommends adding a layer of paper towel or newspaper to hold the moisture, which helps keep the bag intact.

Out in the larger green bin, Heaphy advises residents to again layer material. This means adding in a layer of grass clippings, then food scraps, then newspaper and then food scraps again — or any other compostable combinations.

"If you do it in layers, it will help with decomposition," she said. "If you don't, you just have a nitrogen level right there in one chunk."

Because the green bin waste is headed to a commercial processing facility, Heaphy said people do not need to be concerned about using shredded newspaper instead of large sheets. It will all break down regardless. But, if composting on a smaller scale at home, shredded newspaper will decompose faster.

To manage smells, she recommends lining the pail and bin with newspaper or adding a stronger, compostable scent, such as pine shavings, saw dust, grass clippings or tree leaves.

GreenWaste of Palo Alto, the company collecting the waste along the city's curb, echoes Heaphy's ideas. Katelyn Lewis, environmental outreach manager for GreenWaste of Palo Alto, added that residents can slow decomposition by keeping the bin in the shade and reduce the associated smells by sprinkling baking soda on the heap.

As of an Aug. 21 email from Lewis, she said that drivers have noticed about 60 percent of residents participating in the program.

"We are pleased with that number, and we look to increase participation through additional outreach efforts," she said.

At the start of the program, drivers did notice residents leaving their kitchen pails out for service, which is not supposed to happen. Drivers would then inform the office, and then a customer service representative would reach out to the resident. Now more than a month into the program, Lewis said they no longer see this happening and she believes communication has been effective.

Along with smells and little pails, program changes include longer waste collection routes, Lewis said. This is caused by green bins being dumped each week to avoid food scraps collecting for long amounts of time and the addition of more green bins. Residents in some developments did not have a green bin before because they did not have yard waste. With the addition of food scraps, city staff reached out to those families and supplied them with green bins.

"We are pleased that so many residents have gotten on board with the program," Lewis said, "and we are happy to continue to assist people in adapting to the changes."

What is democracy worth to you?
Support local journalism.


16 people like this
Posted by Yuk
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 28, 2015 at 10:20 am

Gross. And you have to use water to clean out the smelly, rotting, ant attracting pail.

24 people like this
Posted by H8r's gonna do it all day long
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 28, 2015 at 10:50 am

I'm sure people can find lots of excuses, valid or not, to be negative about anything.

2 people like this
Posted by cur mudgeon
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 28, 2015 at 11:02 am

Gonna make me sweep up leaves and trim plants more often, to provide a base for the leaky bio bag. : )

18 people like this
Posted by Composting is a good thing.
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Aug 28, 2015 at 11:05 am

It's just not that hard. I have always composted my veggie and fruit waste at home, but I'm glad to have this new option for the remainder of my compostable material.

I keep my new compost bin next to my garbage container under the kitchen sink. I'm rather amazed at how little trash my family of four (plus two dogs) now sends to landfill. It's worth the truly minimal extra effort.

14 people like this
Posted by Mary
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 28, 2015 at 11:12 am

Can someone please explain to me how milk cartons, take-out cartons, paper towels, etc. can be considered compost worthy, containing all the chemicals that they do? How about the hormones given to animals and the additives in much store-bought food?

1 person likes this
Posted by muttiallen
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 28, 2015 at 11:16 am

muttiallen is a registered user.

We compost our kitchen waste ourselves for our own vegetable garden, so I really like this new pail with a good lid on my counter, instead of the open plastic gallon ice-cream pail that used to sit there. :o)

7 people like this
Posted by CompostGardener
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 28, 2015 at 11:21 am

Does anyone know if this food-scrap contribution program will result in residents being able to collect some good compost in return for our gardens?

6 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 28, 2015 at 12:10 pm

For me the pails are too big and are a nuisance in the kitchen. Instead I use food packaging, colander or a dirty serving dish that is already being used and take it out to the green bin at every meal. The pail needs two hands to empty which means that the green can's lid has to be lifted back completely which is unnecessary if a colander can just be tipped.

I now put out 3 cans each week. I wish we had a smaller black can as we usually only quarter fill the mini black and green can. With the new requirement of placing 3 cans two feet apart we no longer have space outside our house for parking. Our cans used to be placed on our (brown) lawn so we never blocked the sidewalk, they were always replaced all over the sidewalk. They are now replaced by Greenwaste blocking our driveway. The amount of extra work is cumbersome and the extra costs are not fair.

The system needs to be made fair so that households can choose how often to place cans out and get a financial incentive for doing so.

4 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 28, 2015 at 12:11 pm

This story now links to another story. Where is the story about the foul moments?

13 people like this
Posted by Yuckie
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 28, 2015 at 12:11 pm

Another waste of money by GreenWaste......maybe the name is more accurate than we thought.

4 people like this
Posted by Chris
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 28, 2015 at 12:50 pm

I have my own compost and don't use the little bucket. Is there a way to return it? For bigger stuff, I just walk it out to my green bin.

7 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 28, 2015 at 12:57 pm

"She reminds residents to be cautious when removing the bag from their pail. If scraps sit in a bag too long, the entire bundle will start to decompose, which may cause the bag to break. She recommends adding a layer of paper towel or newspaper to hold the moisture, which helps keep the bag intact."

Layer up to protect those compostable plastic bags or, per my experience, they begin dissolving into the garbage in about 3 days.

Ah, progress. We gotta totally pamper our garbage now.

3 people like this
Posted by Roger Overnaut
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 28, 2015 at 1:29 pm

Has the city attempted to inform individual renter households, not just their landlords?


Tenants in my neighborhood tell me they know nothing of the program.

9 people like this
Posted by jerry99
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 28, 2015 at 2:00 pm

Avoid armies of ants and mice- just put the scraps into the garbage disposal. This is by far the stupidest idea I have heard of a city implementing.
Excuse me, the moronic program to replace all gas utilities with electric appliances, with the electricity coming from gas burning plants, is worse.

3 people like this
Posted by Parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Aug 28, 2015 at 3:55 pm


It should be pointed out that fossil fuels are not the only source of electricity in California. As I type this California's curreent demand is 46607MW of which 8258 MW are from renewables. The latter does not include regular hydroelectric.

For sure, California still relies on fossil fuels to make electricity, but every week, the percentage of renewables increases. If I recall correctly, Germany now has enough renewable energy sources to provide electricity for residential purposes.

5 people like this
Posted by sigh
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 28, 2015 at 4:16 pm

I tried it for six weeks but have stopped because we do not generate very much waste. Instead our compost bowl (the plastic container given to us was way too big for our counter top) would get fruit flies and it was messy and stinky. I will still put leftovers in the compost bin outside when I have a lot such as with corn on the cobs. Otherwise, it is not worth the effort.

And, I am trying to follow the two feet apart rule for the big bins, and when you only have two, it's doable. Still, my neighbor parked his car right next to my bin, so then my bin was no longer conforming to instructions.

And, when I have to put out all four of my bins -- there will be no parking left in front of my house!

6 people like this
Posted by Slow Down
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 28, 2015 at 4:59 pm

Slow Down is a registered user.

I found a perfect place for the food scrap bin - the blue recycle bin. I hope it has been recycled into something more useful, like a water bottle.

8 people like this
Posted by A neighbor
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 28, 2015 at 5:02 pm

I am surprised by all the comments about the bad smell and flies and ants. Every night I empty the container and rinse it out before bringing it back in. I do not use any liners. For meat garbage I freeze it and throw it into the green bin the night before our garbage day. Every few weeks I scrub the container in the yard with a brush. I never smell anything or have flies, etc.

8 people like this
Posted by Greenwashed
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 28, 2015 at 5:07 pm

All these "Green" programs are around so that the corporations can generate more revenue, which in turn gets divided up with the city.Also there is a lot of State and Fed grants for "Green" programs that the cities are fighting for. Most you guys and gals are college educated,you can figure it out.

Like this comment
Posted by litgal
a resident of Community Center
on Aug 28, 2015 at 5:32 pm

I've noticed a good many of my neighbors do not seem to be composting. In a few cases if may be that they live on an alley & never got the bucket or literature. So far, I don't mind doing the composting & have noticed our garbage is almost nonexistent now.

Like this comment
Posted by AllenE
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 28, 2015 at 6:25 pm

AllenE is a registered user.

The city should cut trash pick up to once every other week. Then put the garbage in the green bin on a weekly basis. Make the program save us money instead of costing us money (and time). Other than that, it works fine.

For fruit flies, put water, vinegar, sugar, and detergent in a jar next to the small bin. The detergent makes the flies sink when they try and drink the water. They like the vinegar and sugar. Smells like rotting fruit.

6 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Aug 28, 2015 at 7:21 pm

FYI What used to cost $20-$40 for a pick-up worth of tree branches now costs $140.They used our tax money for a Tax-Exempt Bond Financing Program to fund a private corporation for an anaerobic digester, then they got rid of the competition, then raised prices through the roof.

Web Link

6 people like this
Posted by senor blogger
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 29, 2015 at 8:13 am

This program was not at all well thought out by the City.
In other words, it stinks, and attracts scavengers

5 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 29, 2015 at 8:26 am

Let's look at this another way.

In July our collection rates were increased to supposedly pay for the collection of this compostable waste.

In August we were informed by Greenwaste that they had bought new trucks with specialized lifting arms which meant we needed to put our cans out well spaced in the street.

Anything fishy here?

I feel we have been spun a line and we fell for it hook, line and sinker.

2 people like this
Posted by Yuk2
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 29, 2015 at 9:13 am

The most idiotic idea as far as I am concerned. Even though it seems a few people like it.
If you don't clean those bins religiously every day, they're bound to attract fruit flies, ants and smell. What's wrong with garbage disposals?
The main problem is that the program was pushed on us whether we like it or not, AND we have to pay for it.
Maybe 60% use it now, but this percentage may fall down overtime. I know a few people who tried the program and stopped after the expected problems of flies and smell developed.
Refuse costs keep going up and we have less service and more constraints than ever. Now we have to be careful where and how we put the recycle cans, to facilitate pick up by automated trucks, that obviously we are paying for through rate increases.
Also the new 32gal trash cans are useless. They are so narrow, you can only put small garbage bags in them. Where can we put real trash?

Like this comment
Posted by Trying
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 29, 2015 at 11:02 am


Once I am able to set up a system in which I can separate our trash from compostables in the kitchen, most of the "trash" will be compostables. The trouble is that I don't really have space. I'm trying to figure out a container system, but this will eventually happen.

Then, we will just switch permanently back from cloth napkins to paper towels. We use those small fractional paper towels anyway, and this uses no more water to launder the cloth napkins. Then paper towels and kleenexes will absorb all the yuck.

The logistics are proving harder than I expected, though, we still haven't really switched over.

Like this comment
Posted by AllenE
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Aug 29, 2015 at 11:49 am

AllenE is a registered user.

On the small compostable container, If you keep the lid closed, you don't get flies and so far no smell. But you have to slap the top to lock the lid. It is very easy to think it is closed and not have it latched. If you can lift the lid and have it open, it isn't closed all the way. You have to press the latch to open it if really closed.

4 people like this
Posted by KenP
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 29, 2015 at 1:48 pm

Since the bulk of our compostable waste from inside the house is now food soiled paper towels, the little green bucket didn't cut it. I placed it outside (with several more from our neighbors) and they picked them up for reuse.

What I did at home was to switch my main garbage pails into compost pails. I bought some 13 gallon green compostable liners (Costco has some great ones) and line those with a (becoming rare, unfortunately) paper grocery bag. That's good for 2 to 4 days in the kitchen. The only stuff going in the true garbage (which is now the small black bin outside) is non-food stained paper, non-recyclables, non-plasic film, and stuff that is not hazardous household material (like not batteries, motor oil, ink cartridges, etc.). All the stuff in that list can be recycled. True garbage is almost nothing -- it's stuff like paper towels I used to work on the car with, multi-material laminated food containers (e.g.: soy milk containers), animal waste, used tape, Tyvek bags, and such. 2 to 3 green bags in the green bin per week do not make a yukky mess and mix well with my yard and garden clippings.

Complainers, find something else to complain about. [I'm sure you will since you're so practiced...] This is a great program.

3 people like this
Posted by William
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 29, 2015 at 8:06 pm

Ours quickly went from a novelty on the counter, to stinking, attracting a swarm of ants, and then attracting a swarm of tiny flies. The lid was closed, that didn't seem to matter. The latched lid was actually a rather annoying feature, making it inconvenient to use. It was emptied and cleaned regularly to no avail. It's outside now. I do appreciate the city trying to reduce waste, and this was as good as any method to try, it really didn't work for us very well.

6 people like this
Posted by DroughtReminder
a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 29, 2015 at 11:35 pm

To those of you who are still looking at the garbage disposal as your solution to food waste don't forget that we've been asked not to use the disposal because of all the water it's use wastes. When you compost instead, you not only save all that water, but you also save all those nutrients that were bound up in the produce and produces. They are released by the composting process so that they are available to new plants as compost! Nifty eh!

Like this comment
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 30, 2015 at 8:41 am

We are still putting very messy stuff down our waste disposal, eg peach skins and mashed potatoes and gravy. We don't put pots and pans in the dishwasher as it doesn't really do a good job on most so we need to use a dishpan of water to clean them. Then when this goes down the drain, the disposal is switched on. Voila, two jobs with one lot of water.

When I used my pail, it required a lot of water to keep clean. We use something already dirty to hold the stuff to be taken to the green can. Voila, two jobs with one container before it needs to be washed.

Like this comment
Posted by Mary
a resident of Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on Aug 30, 2015 at 10:16 am

to Ken P: Please consider putting your "animal waste" in the toilet instead of in the landfill!

1 person likes this
Posted by Anne
a resident of Midtown
on Aug 30, 2015 at 1:07 pm

I'm delighted that Palo Alto is now allowing compost and food soiled paper and cardboard in the green garden waste bins. I've been looking forward to this service for awhile, as I live in a condo complex and composting wasn't available until this year. However, after trying the bucket for a month or so, I sent it back to Greenwaste. I wish the city hadn't wasted the money on these buckets. I don't have space for it in my kitchen and it stank no matter whether it was on the counter or in the refrigerator as suggested by the enclosed flyer. Also, with the hot weather we have been having, the stench from the garden waste bin was so overpowering it rendered my patio unusable, so I compromised by saving smelly food waste only when we are about to have the bins collected. We don't waste much food so the amount I was putting out was a small volume anyway. When cooler weather comes that will be a more appropriate time to put all of our food waste in the bin. I do think it is a big ask to save compostable items because it takes more time, money and water to manage all the different streams, to buy compostable bags and keep the containers clean, especially when we are all trying to save water right now which also takes more time and attention. One other problem is that pedestrians, probably from Philz coffee, throw their trash into the bins on trash day because the bins have to be left on the street, sometimes rendering the contents non-compliant with composting guidelines. In the past Greenwaste has refused to collect garden waste for this reason which is a real annoyance because not only are the contents not collected that week, I have to pick through everything for the following week. If this becomes a problem again I'll stop composting entirely and return the bin to Greenwaste.

2 people like this
Posted by Vickie
a resident of Barron Park
on Aug 30, 2015 at 4:54 pm

I really appreciate the new food scraps composting program--& it's working just fine for my household (2 adults in a condo). We quickly figured out that what works best for us is to use a compostable bag in our regular under-the-sink kitchen trash can. I do put down some newspaper in the bottom of the kitchen trash can before placing the compostable bag inside & then I place another piece of newspaper in the bottom of the compostable bag. This helps to absorb liquids & helps the bag hold together long enough for me to take out the compostables once a week. The system is working fine for us. We rarely need to take the black cart out to the curb anymore, since virtually everything is compostable or recyclable. I am very happy to be part of this effort to move toward zero waste.

Like this comment
Posted by Regina
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 31, 2015 at 3:48 am

We've never had an ant problem until now. I wish I could post a video of this. But there's a line of ants marching toward my new bucket. There's literally a line of them. I think I'm going to put all of the food scraps in the sink and push it down the garbage disposal. I realize that we're all supposed to be "green" but this is unsanitary. I don't like ANTS! Our city counsel is a bunch of environmental nuts!

2 people like this
Posted by Regina
a resident of Green Acres
on Aug 31, 2015 at 3:55 am

One more thing -- in the next election, I'm not going to vote for any of these environmentalist nuts because of the mess in my home right now.

2 people like this
Posted by Ant Man
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Aug 31, 2015 at 7:07 am

We have had ant invasions numerous times over the years, but the compost bucket has nothing to do with it. They are usually easy to control if you know how. At the first sign of scouts, kill every ant you see and erase their trails with windex or ammonia. If you have a line of ants in your kitchen you should follow the line back to locate the entry point. Plug that with caulk or Vaseline, or use a tiny shot of poison spray right there. That is usually enough to discourage them from coming in, and they will go elsewhere.

Don't miss out on the discussion!
Sign up to be notified of new comments on this topic.


Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Stay informed

Get daily headlines sent straight to your inbox.

Los Altos's State of Mind opening NYC-inspired pizza shop in Palo Alto
By Elena Kadvany | 16 comments | 8,446 views

Wait, wait – we’re working on it
By Diana Diamond | 19 comments | 2,615 views

My Pet Peeves
By John Raftrey and Lori McCormick | 8 comments | 2,046 views

Goodbye toy stores
By Cheryl Bac | 9 comments | 1,361 views

Premarital and Couples: Here Be Dragons!
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,356 views


Short story writers wanted!

The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by March 27, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category. Sponsored by Kepler's Books, Linden Tree Books and Bell's Books.

Contest Details