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.