Palo Alto targets businesses, apartments in renewed composting effort | News | Palo Alto Online |


Palo Alto targets businesses, apartments in renewed composting effort

City wants last night's dinner composted, not buried in the landfill

In a city where good enough is rarely good enough, a plan is afoot to make it mandatory for Palo Alto's apartment dwellers, restaurants and other businesses to stop tossing their leftover food into the trash and instead to put it in composting bins for pickup.

The proposal for required recycling and composting would reduce the amount of garbage sent to the landfill from 20 percent of all city waste collected down toward Palo Alto's long-desired yet elusive goal of nearly zero.

The City Council on Monday night is scheduled to consider the Recycling and Composting Ordinance, which would amend the sanitation and zoning sections of Palo Alto's municipal code. If the council's past vote on the issue is any indication -- it unanimously approved the concept of increasing commercial recycling and composting with almost no discussion in March -- the program will be adopted and launched next April 1.

Already, about 30 percent of the city's commercial businesses voluntarily subscribe to waste-hauler GreenWaste of Palo Alto's recycling and composting services. Their participation has diverted 11,000 tons of food scraps and food-contaminated paper from the dump annually, a staff report from the Public Works Department states.

However, some 1,000 commercial customers don't use the services, meaning another 7,000 tons of organic waste ends up buried in a Morgan Hill landfill each year. As of one year ago, only 62 percent of food-service establishments composted, according to a March staff report.

The expanded recycling and composting program would prevent the emission an estimated 22,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, the new Public Works report states.

In dropping the carrot and bringing out the stick, the city is redoubling its efforts to get to zero waste by its self-imposed deadline of 2021, following a waste-reduction roadmap that the council adopted in 2007. That plan initially saw success, with the tonnage of landfill-bound trash shrinking from 38 percent to 20 percent of all waste collected.

However, that rate hasn't changed much since 2010, and a 2012 study found that there was still 70 percent of the stuff Palo Altans put in garbage cans that could be composted or recycled. Leftover food and food-soiled paper made up the largest part of that tonnage, the Public Works report states.

In pitching a fuller implementation of composting in March to the council's Finance Committee, which vetted the program, city zero-waste program manager Ron Arp explained the targeting of those carrot peels, fish tails and half-eaten meals.

"We view as the largest diversion is to go after the city's commercial and residential compostable materials," Arp said on March 3. "This is what the plan will be centered around."

The proposed commercial composting requirement is actually the other shoe to drop this year when it comes to renewed zero-waste efforts: On July 1, the city launched curbside collection of residential food scraps, a program that included distribution of food-scrap buckets to some 18,000 households for use in residents' kitchen. The new program gives people in single-family homes the ability to throw their leftovers in with their yard clippings for pickup each week.

The change in residential composting will divert 3,000 tons of material from the landfill, according to staff.

But just how eager are businesses, and for that matter owners of apartment complexes (the ordinance would apply to buildings with five or more units), to sign up?

The city's collection system requires customers to sort their waste into three bins – green for compostables, blue for recyclables and black for garbage – and there would be penalties for putting materials into the wrong bins.

According to a survey conducted in September, business customers expressed several main concerns about participating in the GreenWaste services: the need for education on how to properly sort, other people putting waste in customers' bins, keeping the waste areas clean, and who will be held responsible for errors in sorting and for fees, particularly in the case of apartment complexes.

To address these concerns, GreenWaste is conducting outreach and training, including sharing best practices for keeping discarded food scraps from creating odors and attracting vermin.

The city report also notes a benefit for participating: The cost for having compostable materials collected is currently 10 percent less than for garbage, so businesses would save money by composting more and throwing out less. (The staff report notes that the city could stand to lose $78,000 annually through the new commercial program, and city staff would have to assess and propose changes to the refuse rates charged as needed.)

Those businesses that do not sort properly would face escalating consequences: a tag on the container, a training session by GreenWaste, a warning letter, a fee of at least $77 and finally penalties as spelled out in the city municipal code.

The program, as recommended by city staff, would roll out in three phases: Multifamily properties, all food-service establishments (which include grocery stores, take-out places and restaurants, among others) and commercial customers producing 8 cubic yards of compost a week or more would need to subscribe by April 1, 2016. That group constitutes about 150 customers, the city report states.

In the second phase, the approximately 220 commercial customers who generate 2 cubic yards or more of waste a week would be required to sign up for the services by Jan. 1, 2017. The remaining customers, about 600, would have to sign up by Jan. 1, 2018.

The pursuit of greater participation in recycling and composting isn't being prompted by Palo Alto's goals alone, staff note: The state is requiring all municipalities to start collecting compostable material from organizations that produce 10 cubic yards or more each week by April 1, 2016.

Other cities have already taken the lead in mandatory recycling and composting, including Cupertino, San Francisco and East Bay cities, according to Public Works staff. Those programs have reduced waste going to their respective landfills.

In other business Monday night, the council is scheduled to discuss the Land Use & Community Design Element of the city's Comprehensive Plan as part of the guiding document's update. Among the key issues is the potential adoption of a citywide limit on new office development, possibly similar to a restriction adopted in September that currently only applies temporarily to the downtown, California Avenue and El Camino Real areas.

The council's input will inform the work of the Comprehensive Plan Citizens Advisory Committee, which is scheduled to discuss the chapter in December.

The council meeting will start at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 250 Hamilton Ave. View the agenda here.

Related article:

Palo Alto to roll out curbside pickup for food scraps

Staff Writer Gennady Sheyner contributed to this report.

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10 people like this
Posted by Anneke
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 1, 2015 at 12:08 pm

We already are diligent composers for our own use; however, It is still quite unclear to me what exactly to put into the blue "recycling/composting" bins and what to put into the green "composting" bins.

Two simple recommendations:

1. Invest in and distribute a blue and green laminated card with a magnet that educates the Palo Alto population on what goes where. People can put this on their refrigerators, and it will function as a quick and easy reference. Also, put a website address on it for further questions.

2. Work with Costco, Ace, or The Container Store, to supply a realistic and functional compost bin for food scraps. The one distributed several months ago was really not well thought out, although it was a good start. We bought one at one of the stores above; it is large enough, we keep it outside, it works well, and it keeps critters away.

The easier you make it, the quicker it will get adopted!

14 people like this
Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 1, 2015 at 12:24 pm

This article is about commercial and apartment composting, and I agree with Anneke that the residential "bins" we were provided are not the solution for single family dwellings.

I do not put out my green bin every week, since it depends on the time of year, when leaves drop, etc. Besides, it is huge.

I tried the little bin we were provided, and it was full of mold in no time flat. So I stopped using it.

I want to be part of the solution here, but the "human factor" considerations for single family dwelling residences need more thorough analysis and planning, based on my experience.

18 people like this
Posted by Merry
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 1, 2015 at 12:52 pm

Time to rethink the zero waste thing. When there is compliance the city will lose money so rates go up again.
It is complicated and expensive now. Zero waste is not the answer.

5 people like this
Posted by Curmudgeon
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 1, 2015 at 12:55 pm

Two suggestions

Save closeable take home food containers for composting wet food scraps.

Coordinate with your neighbors to take turns putting the green bin at the curb. Fill it there.

3 people like this
Posted by Anneke
a resident of Professorville
on Nov 1, 2015 at 2:11 pm


Apartment renters are similar to homeowners, but without the value of property. I somehow believe that homeowners tend to be more involved in what is going on with regard to responsibilities to issues such as composting. People in apartments tend to move more often and may have less interest in wanting to do what the city wants them to do. I believe that apartment owners would hesitate to put penalties on their renters, as that would influence the renters to move out more easily. Renters have that flexibility.

In general, I believe in the goodwill of human beings, and especially if we know what we need to do.

I want to compost, but I do not know exactly what to do. If I as a committed person and homeowner do not know, do you think that apartment renters do?

I would like everyone to come up with possible ideas for making this composting goal successful.

4 people like this
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Nov 1, 2015 at 2:33 pm

Would focusing on the cost savings for businesses and tenants be enough to increase the amount of composting from these factions?

7 people like this
Posted by Not Yet
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 1, 2015 at 3:00 pm

Thanks Anneke. I too find it so much more complicated as the years go by. And then when you travel outside of the city they have different recycling rules. Would love it if the containers/products had green, blue and black recycling logos. So can food scrapes go down the garbage disposal? Or does that flow to bay? With the drought, I never have lawn clippings and no way will I fill up that green bin with food scraps without my house SMELLING really bad. It would take a year. So I haven't found a way yet to accommodate though I would really like to be green. So for now, I'm just sticking to the old way.

5 people like this
Posted by PAHC Resident
a resident of El Carmelo School
on Nov 2, 2015 at 4:27 am

I would like to see residential composting brought to apartment dwellers. Palo Alto Housing Corporation could probably be compelled to do this. Surely the amount of garbage produced by my 12-unit complex could be reduced significantly under such a program--currently, we have a commercial sized dumpster and it fills up every week. I know I would definitely make use of a compost bin if it were provided, and I think most of my neighbors would too.

5 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 2, 2015 at 8:31 am

To Paul Losch and others wondering how to keep the little compost bucket clean: We buy compostable food waste bags at Piazza's Market. A compostable bag keeps the little bucket from getting too messy from the food scraps and keeps the food scraps contained when we put it in the outside bin. A quick wipe of the inside of the bucket with some Windex after we toss the bag into the compost bin and there is no mold and no smell at all.

2 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 2, 2015 at 8:45 am

Any information on how the schools are doing? My kids have been bringing leftover food home rather than dumping it, but I can't find out if this is now as a result of complicated school policy or my student just changing lunch routines. I keep getting conflicting information when I ask.

Like this comment
Posted by Paul Losch
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 2, 2015 at 10:01 am


Thanks for the tip about the compostable bags at Piazza's. It is not s place I shop, and other grocers and drug/variety stores in town can offer this as well. Awareness is needed.

19 people like this
Posted by David Hoffman
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 2, 2015 at 10:07 am

Jeez, how about the City Council tackle some bigger issues first?

Say, for example, out-of-control commercial development downtown accompanied by an endless series of exceptions for builders that are gradually destroying the character of our downtown (not to mention single-handedly creating the parking nightmare that necessitated the parking permit pilot program)? Or enforcing traffic regulations in our neighborhoods to cut down on people speeding and running stop signs everywhere?

Furthermore, if you're going to make composting mandatory, how about making some information about the program available to residents -- and I mean actively, not just burying it on the city website somewhere. Our condo complex was given the little countertop compost bins months ago, but we don't have any larger compost bins in the complex, so they go completely unused. Talk about a waste of money!

Stay out of my kitchen until you get your act together!

2 people like this
Posted by BH
a resident of Green Acres
on Nov 2, 2015 at 10:34 am

Costco carries those green compostable bags also.

1 person likes this
Posted by A pedestrian
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Nov 2, 2015 at 10:52 am

[Post removed.]

6 people like this
Posted by Hmmmm
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 2, 2015 at 11:31 am

Our complex has 38 bins that are squished together on the short space in front of our gate, the only areas not marked for public parking. So now 57 bins out front?

Maybe organize having larger shared bins that zero waste picks up inside the gates so that exiting the single driveway is less hazardous and less congested? They come in to pick up some people's bins for a monthly fee, but do not bill to the complex, which would be helpful.

Regarding fines, in the downtown area, sometimes are bins are refilled by passers by and businesses whilst they sit on the curb, before or after zero waste comes by. So fines are not practical in our area.

17 people like this
Posted by Resigned
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 2, 2015 at 11:44 am

I tried the small compostable bin, but i can't fill it fast enough since as a single person i don't cook or eat enough at home, so the bin got very smelly and developed disgusting maggots. I threw out everything and went back to the old way.

11 people like this
Posted by enough!
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Nov 2, 2015 at 11:50 am

The fruit flies those things attract are gross.

20 people like this
Posted by Just Do It
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 2, 2015 at 11:55 am

Apartments, businesses and especially restaurant SHOULD be recycling and composting.

When I worked at Stanford, I was shocked and disappointed that none of their on-campus building recycled or composted--especially since they had a plant for both at that time.

The recycling and compost materials that restaurants put out is enormous in amount compared to other businesses or residents. What other business or resident cooks and eats all day?

9 people like this
Posted by Jenny
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 2, 2015 at 12:31 pm

Lots of good food for the rats, skunks, and racoons. Way to go critters!!!!

6 people like this
Posted by jerry99
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 2, 2015 at 12:46 pm

[Post removed.]

3 people like this
Posted by CCW
a resident of Greendell/Walnut Grove
on Nov 2, 2015 at 12:48 pm

@Paul Losch, Costco in Mt. View sells the 3 gallon compostable bags in packs of 125. They do make composting easier and you don't need to deal with rodents, ants or smells as much. We only had an ant invasion once into the the big green bin. We put the big green bin out weekly even when not full. Also, if using the bio bags, you don't need to wash the green bin as often or barely ever.

8 people like this
Posted by jane
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 2, 2015 at 12:51 pm

The standard green compost bin provided by the city is huge and quite impractical to put out every week unless it is at least half full. I called Greenwaste to ask if they had a smaller size and lo and behold a 20 gallon green compost was dropped off this week. Since I can always find a few leaves and prunings to line the bottom this is going to be much more convenient and increase my compliance hugely.

6 people like this
Posted by Grandma
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 2, 2015 at 1:18 pm

I have nothing to compost. I m a senior who lives alone with her husband. I only cook a few dYs a week. All food scraps go into the garbage disposal. Easy.

6 people like this
Posted by Jake
a resident of University South
on Nov 2, 2015 at 1:53 pm

This is really not that difficult. San Francisco has a mandatory composting ordinance that is operating successfully. Here are some tips from their website:
I'm afraid that when I put my organic material in the green composting bin, it is going to make a mess. Can I use plastic bags in these carts?
No, the only cart that can be lined with a plastic bag is the black one for garbage. We CANNOT accept recyclables or compostable material in plastic bags. Plastic bags are a big problem for the equipment that processes this material. However, you can line your green and blue carts with newspaper, paper bags, or cardboard.

There are special Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI)-certified bags available to line the composting cart and kitchen pail. Cole Hardware, Rainbow Grocery, Albertsons, Wal-Mart and dozens of other stores carry these BPI certified bags.

Find locations selling "compostable" bags.

Visit the Biodegradable Products Institute for more information about compostable products such as garbage bags.

TIP: A neat and convenient alternative for kitchen waste collection is an empty paper milk carton. Just open the top, fill it with food, fold the top closed when full, and drop it into your green cart for collection.

I hope that multifamily buildings will include condos and not just apartments.

1 person likes this
Posted by Craig Laughton
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 2, 2015 at 2:01 pm

>I do not put out my green bin every week, since it depends on the time of year, when leaves drop, etc. Besides, it is huge.

I tried the little bin we were provided, and it was full of mold in no time flat. So I stopped using it.

I want to be part of the solution here, but the "human factor" considerations for single family dwelling residences need more thorough analysis and planning, based on my experience.

@ Paul Losch: I know you to be an intelligent guy. So, why are entertaining this fiasco of 'composting' our organic waste? Not only are you (and many others) frustrated by this food scrap nonsense, but the entire approach is flawed. The correct solution, IMO, is to thermally gasify all the waste stream stuff in one step (e.g. plasma arc)...and use the resulting syngas to combust in generators to make electricity. Such a process will destroy (or trap) all the organic toxins; the inorganic material is melted into slag which is useful for a variety of basic materials. In terms of us citizens, we can just put everything in a single bin, and forget about it...problem solved.

1 person likes this
Posted by Wondering
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 2, 2015 at 2:55 pm

To Jake:

I thought paper milk cartons go to recycling ... Are you sure they are biodegradable?

3 people like this
Posted by Sylvia
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 2, 2015 at 4:27 pm

I got the compostable bags that fit the little composting buckets the city gave us. I also live alone and thus don't produce that much garbage. If it seems too nasty, I just put it in the outdoor, big green bin and insert another bag.

Regarding fruit flies, someone (forgot who) posted a solution that worked for me. They vanished once I did this:

"Once my house was full of fruit flies I needed a way to get rid of them. Google is my friend and a jar mostly full of water with some vinegar and sugar and, very important, some dish detergent. The flies are attracted to fermenting fruit and that smells a lot like vinegar so they will go there. They are used to being able to walk on water as they are so light but the detergent breaks the surface tension and they go right to the bottom."

6 people like this
Posted by Senior
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 2, 2015 at 4:57 pm

It does not make sense to put out 3 cans with a dribble in the bottom plus it is very difficult for me to have to roll them out and back each day at my age

Everything I have fits into about 1/4 of the mini black can which is I can handle alright.

6 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 2, 2015 at 5:48 pm

Marie is a registered user.

I also got a 20 gallon green bin as the large ones are too cumbersome to put out every week. I use the biobags or milk carton if I have one. I keep the compost (mostly paper contaminated with food waste) in the refrigerator until the night before the garbage is picked up which keeps the flies down.

I also throw most of my vegetable and fruit compost (peelings and the like) under my bushes in the back - they decompose in just a few weeks. And as a bonus, I've gotten volunteer pepper plants and scallions from time to time.

Whether this is the best bang for our buck seems unlikely to me. I hope the anaerobic digester works out. I think any system that requires 3 separate trucks to pick up all the garbage, causes an a lot of unneeded air pollution.

1 person likes this
Posted by Need dimensions for planning
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 2, 2015 at 6:34 pm

Please provide dimensions and photos of your various composting curb size containers. Please post this information explicitly on both the Zero Waste PALO Alto web site, as well as the Greenwaste website.
Please provide (post explicitly) the dimensions of the various tote containers that the city provides via Greenwaste. Pictures would also be helpful. Please post on Both the Zerowaste website and the Greenwaste website. We have been asking about this information for months.

For example, I found this on another vendor's website. Are the PALO Alto carts the same dimensions as these?
"What are the dimensions of the of 32, 64, and 96 gallon toter carts?

Cart Size Length Width Height
32 gallon 24.50" 19.00" 38.25"
64 gallon 31.50" 24.00" 41.50"
96 gallon 35.00" 27.25" 44.50"
20 gallon same as 32 gallon with the lid 2 inches taller to accommodate a special 20 gallon insert."

1 person likes this
Posted by Need dimensions for plannings
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 2, 2015 at 6:45 pm

Jake and Wondering,
Both the milk cartons and biodegradable plastics can be deposited in the a green a compost cart in Palo Alto. Go here for more info: Web Link

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Evergreen Park

on Nov 2, 2015 at 10:25 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

Posted by Name hidden
a resident of Evergreen Park

on Nov 2, 2015 at 10:28 pm

Due to repeated violations of our Terms of Use, comments from this poster are automatically removed. Why?

5 people like this
Posted by ChrisC
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 3, 2015 at 12:17 am

ChrisC is a registered user.

Milk cartons previously were garbage; not recycling. Now they can go into composting. I called Green Waste to find out, because one of their flyers showed milk cartons going in garbage and another showed them going into composting. They still confuse: a recent mailing showed milk cartons going into composting and the soup, or nut milk containers going into garbage. BUT they are all asceptic material plus Green Waste told me those go in composting too. The City has a lot of nerve talking about fines for mistakes; it is sooo confusing. AND why isn't it mandatory for home owners ? Why are they targeting apartment dwellers? @Anneke: in my eight-unit apt building, there are only three tenants here less than 10 years; the rest of us average about 20. So stop your generalizations about renters.@end. PLUS it's not fair to restaurants. Some have separate receptacles for the three, but who can figure it out? Not I before i had to do it at home. So then they have to pay people to sort it. HEY City, why don't you make restaurants donate their leftover food to charity? They don't do it because they have to pay someone to wrap it. So, composting over feeding people?

Like this comment
Posted by Composter
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Nov 3, 2015 at 9:14 am

I line our small bin with compostable bags. They can be bought on Amazon in bulk for lower cost. Then I throw the bag (knotted) into the green cart on top of either leaves, or food-stained paper like pizza box.

8 people like this
Posted by Composter
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 3, 2015 at 7:38 pm

We live in a condo community where we take the trash, recyling and compost bin to the curb on Monday night. That's 75 residents times 2 bins ( a lot of my neighbors did not request the green bins). I love the idea of composting and between composting and recycling my trash generation is now down to one bag from 3-4 per week. That said, composting for us is a pain because we do not have adequate room in our garage to store three bins ( our HOA requires us to park in our garages), we have no backyards or external water faucets to clean the compost bin out. I am not surprised that many of my neighbors do not compost because in addition to not having room to store the bins, there is the added task of cleaning out a stinky bin. Mandating composting while noble will actually be extremely inconvenient and cumbersome for those in multi home neighborhoods. I wish the city had thought this through and would have a differentiated approach for those in townhome/cond communities rather than dump a one size fits all approach.


8 people like this
Posted by WilliamR
a resident of Fairmeadow
on Nov 3, 2015 at 8:28 pm

I know this is a serious issue, but I laugh when I read the headline, "Businesses, Apartments targeted for composting". Yes, there are probably some businesses and apartments which should be composted.....

5 people like this
Posted by blight
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 4, 2015 at 5:52 am

A needed add-on to the City's garbage policies is a requirement that the three bins be stored in back yards or screened out of sight like in other
cities which generally try to prevent blight.

1 person likes this
Posted by ndn
a resident of Downtown North
on Nov 4, 2015 at 7:28 am


People living in apartments are of all kinds:many are owners. Your arguments make no sense whatsoever because you assume wrongly that those living in apartments are renters. Around where I live the great majority of aartment dwellers are owners.

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