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Palo Alto looks to require all businesses to compost

Seeking to increase diversion from landfills, city looks to pass new ordinance in 2016

Making rules for waste disposal can be a messy business in Palo Alto, as the City Council learned last month when it pondered a new law that would require all local businesses to recycle and compost.

At the time, members lauded the goal of the new law – less trash heading to landfills – but took issue with some of the details of the ordinance.

Councilman Greg Scharff criticized it for being to broad and ambiguous, possibly subjecting residential customers to fines for placing trash in the wrong container. And Mayor Karen Holman complained that the proposed ordinance didn't make sufficient reference to salvaging of materials during demolition.

Last week, however, the revised version of the law coasted through the council's Finance Committee. Provided it receives the expected approval of the full council, the new law would require all businesses and multi-family complexes to subscribe to recycling and composting services and to sort waste accordingly.

The new law is the latest step in Palo Alto's drive to divert waste and encourage composting. In July, the city's trash hauler, GreenWaste, began collecting for the first time organic waste such as food scraps, yard trimmings and food-soiled paper.

The residential program, which also included a kitchen bucket for every customer, is expected to divert about 3,000 tons of compostable materials annually, according to a recent report from the Public Works Department.

Yet, as city officials have frequently pointed out, more can be done. About 70 percent of the trash that gets discarded into black containers can either be recycled or composted, according to staff. The commercial sector is seen as a huge source of this waste, with an estimated 7,000 tons of commercially generated compostable material ending up in landfills. Thus, it also represents for the city the best opportunity to boost its diversion rate, which has hovered around 80 percent since 2010.

"The commercial sector generates about two-thirds of all of our garbage that goes to landfill disposal," Solid Waste Manager Ron Arp told the Finance Committee on Dec. 15. "About 40 percent is compostable. We really view this as a great opportunity to cost-effectively get this material, keep it diverted from landfill disposal and help our 'zero waste' goal."

While the goal of reaching zero waste is widely seen as aspirational rather than realistic, officials believe the new composting and recycling requirements could bring the city much closer to this ideal.

Phil Bobel, assistant director of Public Works, said that if the city can achieve a 90 percent diversion rate (an achievement that the new ordinance is expected to facilitate), "that would be virtually having achieved our goal."

The Finance Committee praised staff's work on the revised ordinance, with Chair Greg Schmid calling it "a major step forward."

"It's been very successful on a household basis," Schmid said. "I think reaching 90 percent would be a real achievement."

While commercial customers have had the option to subscribe to composting and recycling services since 2009, thus far only about 30 percent have signed up, according to a Public Works report. When asked in a 2014 survey why they don't subscribe, many commercial customers simply responded that it's not required.

"Despite the fact that nearly all would save on their utility bill, most did not feel that subscribing to compost service was worthwhile," the report stated.

The new ordinance would require everyone to subscribe to the two services and would set a series of penalties for refuse miscreants. If a cart is contaminated with the wrong category of waste, the trash hauler would place a tag on the cart but still collect the waste.

A second violation would bring a GreenWaste representative to the site for waste-sorting training; a third would elicit a letter from the city, describing the contamination, detailing the prior efforts to resolve the problem and warning of possible fees ahead.

Fines wouldn't start at least until the fourth violation. That's when the customers would have the option of either removing the waste from the container and paying a "return trip" fee or keeping the waste in there and paying two fees: one for the trash hauler's return trip and another for "extra solid-waste pick-up." The return trip fee is currently $77, while the fee for extra sorting and disposal would be based on the size and type of container.

Any further violations could lead to fines, according to the city.

The enforcement of the commercial program would roll out in three phases. For food establishments, multi-family complexes and the city's largest commercial customers (those that generate 8 cubic yard of garbage per week), the new requirement will kick in on April 1. This will affect about 150 existing customers that do not subscribe to the city's composting service.

On Jan. 1, 2017, the ordinance would start to apply to all commercial customers that generate 2 cubic yards or more (about 220 that don't currently subscribe). And on Jan. 1, 2018, it would spread to all the remaining commercial customers (about 600).

While rolling out the ordinance, Public Works also plans to address some of the major concerns from local businesses about the new requirement. GreenWaste is now promoting its "bin wash" service to help customers comply with the ordinance's cleanliness requirements, according to the Public Works report.

Officials are also planning to step up its education and outreach efforts toward both businesses and multi-family customers. According to Public Works, "education and outreach to customers, janitorial staff, workers and tenants will be the primary method of ensuring compliance."

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7 people like this
Posted by easong
a resident of another community
on Dec 25, 2015 at 10:44 am

So what is a foil and paper container covered with food scraps? Trash, recycling, or compost? Just want to avoid the fine.

3 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Dec 25, 2015 at 4:01 pm

"While commercial customers have had the option to subscribe to composting and recycling services since 2009, thus far only about 30 percent have signed up"

Can we find out which commercial customers have signed up? How many out of the 100+ on the Weekly's "Best of Palo Alto 2015" list?

Such information just might affect where I choose to shop or eat.

8 people like this
Posted by SteveU
a resident of Barron Park
on Dec 26, 2015 at 11:55 am

SteveU is a registered user.

Why is this not a 'taking' of real estate?
These businesses pay huge rents.
Now CPA wants them to devote more space to a separate 'compost' container.
This is in addition to the additional manpower to manage the separation and decontamination (remove wrong material in the inside compost bin).

This is not saying that businesses can not CHOOSE to participate .

Once again the folk at city hall have forgotten WHO is paying for all these feel great programs. It ain't them (personally, not using our Tax $))

7 people like this
Posted by Darwin
a resident of another community
on Dec 26, 2015 at 5:20 pm


I don't know if you're being sarcastic or not, but I'll answer your question for you. On the very rare occurrence (I can't even think of an item that fits this) in which you'd have a foil and paper item covered in food you throw it in the landfill. If you're willing to separate them you could throw the metal piece in the recycling and the paper piece in the compost. Foil is not the same thing as having a metallic lining, but the general rule of thumb is if it has a silver metallic lining it should go in the landfill; chip bags, candy wrappers, etc.

2 people like this
Posted by Michael
a resident of University South
on Dec 26, 2015 at 8:21 pm

"This is not saying that businesses can not CHOOSE to participate ."

Businesses can choose to leave when they deem the local business climate not to their liking. Fine. Let the marketplace rule. There are lots of others ready to take their places in this town.

4 people like this
Posted by ChrisC
a resident of College Terrace
on Dec 28, 2015 at 2:09 pm

Why doesn't the City require businesses to donate edible food to charities? Currently they toss end of the day leftovers in the bin. I'm hoping the homeless know which bins to look in. In my opinion, it is criminal to routinely throw food away that could feed people.

3 people like this
Posted by rose
a resident of Mayfield
on Dec 28, 2015 at 6:38 pm

Since I've started composting, I hardly have any "garbage." It's amazing -- I was able to switch from a large garbage basket in my kitchen to a very small one. With the improvements Palo Alto has made, almost everything is either recyclable or compostable now. I wouldn't even say it's more work, I'm so happy to do it to help keep our planet healthy. Thank you City Council for embracing this positive change.

Like this comment
Posted by CMC
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Dec 28, 2015 at 8:42 pm

Composting is such a no brainer that there shouldn't even be a discussion about it - for businesses or residences.

The bigger discussion should be why our food is still being hauled away to far away placed to be composted? Palo Alto couldn't come to a consensus about composting here, so it is sent away --- another NIMBY moment for this great city. And while we NIMBY ourselves away, the fossil fuels accumulated in hauling the food scraps negate a good part of the benefit of composting.

Like this comment
Posted by DeRarumNatura
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jan 1, 2016 at 6:50 am

"I think reaching 90 percent (waste reduction) would be a real achievement." I'm glad someone is finally thinking about government waste.

5 people like this
Posted by Johnny
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 1, 2016 at 10:25 am

Wow every new article here is about the government of Palo Alto banning, restricting and controlling things. Slowly tightening around the citizenry like a boa constrictor.

Like this comment
Posted by OldSchool
a resident of Meadow Park
on Jan 9, 2016 at 4:39 am

There is a California state law (AB 341) actually requiring commercial businesses to reduce their waste so Palo Alto isn't inventing this just to make it harder on commercial enterprises. Being the ones who actually collect waste and recycling, it makes sense to create a uniform system. It's not that hard people/businesses and if you have that much trouble sorting refuse materials, I worry for your ability to function in life. So don't be lazy and stop whining!

It's so funny how many people complain about the CPA enacting new restrictions and controls that push for the city to be greener and more livable. It's not new folks and these kinds of efforts are the reason people actually want to live in Palo Alto. Oh, and reducing greenhouse gases will help ensure our kids and grandkids can go outside in future summers rather than force them to stay inside in an air conditioned home. Even Palo Alto's bubble-like property values can't protect you from climate change.

3 people like this
Posted by Long Time Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jan 9, 2016 at 5:41 am

Now how about all the unnecessary waste from deconstruction?
Tearing our neighborhoods and roads apart, and pumping out our groundwater.

Seems like composting is a just a drop in the bucket when you consider the overall massive environmental damage which is being done and promoted by this city.

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