News

Palo Alto shifts to domestic markets for recycled goods

City finds partners in Louisiana, southern California for materials shipped to unknown destinations in Asia

Workers pick out papers for recycling by hand before they are sent to the landfill at Shoreway Environmental Center in San Carlos on April 29, 2019. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Palo Alto takes pride in its record on recycling, but the city's recent efforts to track materials as they make their way from blue bins and onto ships to Asia and Mexico have been a glaring failure.

Despite the city's requirement that its hauler, GreenWaste of Palo Alto, issue annual reports describing where the roughly 14,000 tons of local recyclable material goes, the company's accounts have been vague and incomplete, raising more questions than they answer. With brokers dominating the murky market, GreenWaste reported in January that information about the final destination of exported recyclable materials is difficult to track and often safeguarded from disclosure. The brokers and GreenWaste, the company reported in January, "stand to be harmed" by these disclosures because they would lose markets for some materials and jeopardize relationships with buyers.

Given the difficulty of extracting information, Palo Alto is preparing for a big pivot from international markets, which received about 61% of local materials in recent years, to domestic ones. Concerned about the environmental and human rights impact that recyclable shipments have on communities abroad, the city this year began a pilot program that would ship local mixed paper to a mill in Louisiana and that would send mixed rigid plastics — which include crates, buckets and toys — to Chino and Jurupo Valley in southern California.

If approved by the City Council, which is set to consider it on June 6, the program would extend a three-month pilot program that the city launched in April for the entire fiscal year 2023. It would effectively curb most overseas shipments of local recyclable goods to nations such as India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, said Phil Bobel, who retired as assistant director at the Department of Public Works and who is working with the Zero Waste Team to launch the new program.

Bobel said in an interview that the program makes sure that almost all recycled materials apart from cardboard will be shipped to domestic destinations. Palo Alto's recycled paper would go to Pratt Industries, a company in Shreveport, Louisiana, where it would be mixed with pulp from trees and reused as paper. That would be a sharp break from past practices, where 100% of the city's mixed paper was exported. The city is generating about 3,500 tons of mixed paper in the current fiscal year and the number is projected to increase to 3,800 tons in 2023, according to Bobel.

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Mixed plastics, meanwhile, would go to two plastic manufacturers in southern California, Envision Plastics in Chino and PreZero Plastics in Jurupa Valley. The material there gets broken down into nurdles — tiny plastic beads — that are then used to create new plastic products, Bobel said.

"We're very excited about this," Bobel said. "It's a great opportunity for us to be one of the first communities to keep everything except cardboard domestic. Then we'll know where it's going."

A worker walks past machines sorting mixed paper and transporting trash at Shoreway Environmental Center in San Carlos on April 29, 2019. Photo by Magali Gauthier.

Cardboard will continue to get shipped abroad through brokers such a Novato-based CellMark, Los Angeles-based Berg Mill Supply and Orange-based Newport CH International, which have not been providing cardboard traceability data to GreenWaste. The city is less worried about cardboard than about other materials, Bobel said, because the material represents very good feedstock for paper plants and, as such, is very unlikely to create environmental and social problems in developing nations.

Keeping mixed plastics and mixed paper domestic will come at a cost. The pilot program for fiscal year 2023, which begins on July 1, would require about $1.2 million in extra costs, money that the council will be asked to authorize on June 6. Bobel said the money would be shifted from the city's reserves and would not require rate increases in the coming year, though it may impact rates in 2024. Bobel said city staff hope that costs will be mitigated in future years by the expansion of the domestic market for recyclable materials.

"Our real hope is that the prices drop dramatically — that more U.S. markets emerge and more entrepreneurs realize that this needs to occur in the U.S., that there are people who will pay money to keep it in U.S," Bobel said.

Sorters at the GreenWaste MRF sort volumes of PET and HDPE plastic, most commonly found in water bottles and drinking containers, which are later sold to domestic buyers and processed into plastic flakes for recycling. Embarcadero Media file photo by Veronica Weber.

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The problem of tracking the destination of recyclable goods became pronounced in the aftermath of China's ban in 2018 on nearly all foreign waste. With the market in flux, many nations directed their plastic waste to ad hoc dumps and landfills in countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Bob Wenzlau, who pioneered Palo Alto's recycling program, called the city's move to reduce how much waste is shipped abroad is a good step but argued that much more needs to be done to make sure recyclable goods are sustainably disposed of. Given the difficulty of tracking recyclable materials that go abroad and finding a domestic market for cardboard, the city should consider an alternative that would surprise many environmentalists: putting it in landfills.

From an environmental standpoint, landfilling may actually be the superior alternative, he said, because of the large amount of waste, energy and wastewater that recycling generates. He noted in a letter that about 25% of cardboard is disposed of in the recycling process. Neither the solid or liquid residuals are managed to U.S. environmental standards and the solids often go to communities with "exploitive picking operations," he wrote in a letter to the city.

Materials that get shipped to unknown destinations in southeast Asia crosses a "red line" the expectations of the Palo Alto community.

"We want to make sure we're on the domestic side of the red line," Wenzlau said. "If at some point someone shows us that they're doing a great job with the recycling processes in Asia, then all is good and to me that red line goes away. So far, we don't know."

The city, however, is not keen to revert to landfilling. Bobel said that putting local waste in landfills would put the city into noncompliance with various state regulations. Furthermore, as material in landfills breaks down, the process releases greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, he said.

"I think what it points to is more focus on reducing, more focus on reusing — so that the materials don't have to be destroyed and remade again, which is what recycling does," Wenzlau said. "We always say reduce, reuse, recycle. What we're learning is that recycling is not as benign as we think."

Wenzlau and Bobel both said, however, that the best way to address waste disposal is to make sure that recycled materials get reused after they get hauled out. City staff is confident that the new program achieves that, particularly when it comes to mixed paper, Bobel said.

"This is actually one of the best opportunities for true recycling because you're taking fiber and you're making fiber," Bobel said. "Here's an opportunity with a pulp and paper mill to retain fiber and make new paper."

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Gennady Sheyner covers the City Hall beat in Palo Alto as well as regional politics, with a special focus on housing and transportation. Before joining the Palo Alto Weekly/PaloAltoOnline.com in 2008, he covered breaking news and local politics for the Waterbury Republican-American, a daily newspaper in Connecticut. Read more >>

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Palo Alto shifts to domestic markets for recycled goods

City finds partners in Louisiana, southern California for materials shipped to unknown destinations in Asia

by / Palo Alto Weekly

Uploaded: Wed, May 25, 2022, 9:52 am

Palo Alto takes pride in its record on recycling, but the city's recent efforts to track materials as they make their way from blue bins and onto ships to Asia and Mexico have been a glaring failure.

Despite the city's requirement that its hauler, GreenWaste of Palo Alto, issue annual reports describing where the roughly 14,000 tons of local recyclable material goes, the company's accounts have been vague and incomplete, raising more questions than they answer. With brokers dominating the murky market, GreenWaste reported in January that information about the final destination of exported recyclable materials is difficult to track and often safeguarded from disclosure. The brokers and GreenWaste, the company reported in January, "stand to be harmed" by these disclosures because they would lose markets for some materials and jeopardize relationships with buyers.

Given the difficulty of extracting information, Palo Alto is preparing for a big pivot from international markets, which received about 61% of local materials in recent years, to domestic ones. Concerned about the environmental and human rights impact that recyclable shipments have on communities abroad, the city this year began a pilot program that would ship local mixed paper to a mill in Louisiana and that would send mixed rigid plastics — which include crates, buckets and toys — to Chino and Jurupo Valley in southern California.

If approved by the City Council, which is set to consider it on June 6, the program would extend a three-month pilot program that the city launched in April for the entire fiscal year 2023. It would effectively curb most overseas shipments of local recyclable goods to nations such as India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Mexico, Taiwan, Thailand and Vietnam, said Phil Bobel, who retired as assistant director at the Department of Public Works and who is working with the Zero Waste Team to launch the new program.

Bobel said in an interview that the program makes sure that almost all recycled materials apart from cardboard will be shipped to domestic destinations. Palo Alto's recycled paper would go to Pratt Industries, a company in Shreveport, Louisiana, where it would be mixed with pulp from trees and reused as paper. That would be a sharp break from past practices, where 100% of the city's mixed paper was exported. The city is generating about 3,500 tons of mixed paper in the current fiscal year and the number is projected to increase to 3,800 tons in 2023, according to Bobel.

Mixed plastics, meanwhile, would go to two plastic manufacturers in southern California, Envision Plastics in Chino and PreZero Plastics in Jurupa Valley. The material there gets broken down into nurdles — tiny plastic beads — that are then used to create new plastic products, Bobel said.

"We're very excited about this," Bobel said. "It's a great opportunity for us to be one of the first communities to keep everything except cardboard domestic. Then we'll know where it's going."

Cardboard will continue to get shipped abroad through brokers such a Novato-based CellMark, Los Angeles-based Berg Mill Supply and Orange-based Newport CH International, which have not been providing cardboard traceability data to GreenWaste. The city is less worried about cardboard than about other materials, Bobel said, because the material represents very good feedstock for paper plants and, as such, is very unlikely to create environmental and social problems in developing nations.

Keeping mixed plastics and mixed paper domestic will come at a cost. The pilot program for fiscal year 2023, which begins on July 1, would require about $1.2 million in extra costs, money that the council will be asked to authorize on June 6. Bobel said the money would be shifted from the city's reserves and would not require rate increases in the coming year, though it may impact rates in 2024. Bobel said city staff hope that costs will be mitigated in future years by the expansion of the domestic market for recyclable materials.

"Our real hope is that the prices drop dramatically — that more U.S. markets emerge and more entrepreneurs realize that this needs to occur in the U.S., that there are people who will pay money to keep it in U.S," Bobel said.

The problem of tracking the destination of recyclable goods became pronounced in the aftermath of China's ban in 2018 on nearly all foreign waste. With the market in flux, many nations directed their plastic waste to ad hoc dumps and landfills in countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Bob Wenzlau, who pioneered Palo Alto's recycling program, called the city's move to reduce how much waste is shipped abroad is a good step but argued that much more needs to be done to make sure recyclable goods are sustainably disposed of. Given the difficulty of tracking recyclable materials that go abroad and finding a domestic market for cardboard, the city should consider an alternative that would surprise many environmentalists: putting it in landfills.

From an environmental standpoint, landfilling may actually be the superior alternative, he said, because of the large amount of waste, energy and wastewater that recycling generates. He noted in a letter that about 25% of cardboard is disposed of in the recycling process. Neither the solid or liquid residuals are managed to U.S. environmental standards and the solids often go to communities with "exploitive picking operations," he wrote in a letter to the city.

Materials that get shipped to unknown destinations in southeast Asia crosses a "red line" the expectations of the Palo Alto community.

"We want to make sure we're on the domestic side of the red line," Wenzlau said. "If at some point someone shows us that they're doing a great job with the recycling processes in Asia, then all is good and to me that red line goes away. So far, we don't know."

The city, however, is not keen to revert to landfilling. Bobel said that putting local waste in landfills would put the city into noncompliance with various state regulations. Furthermore, as material in landfills breaks down, the process releases greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane, he said.

"I think what it points to is more focus on reducing, more focus on reusing — so that the materials don't have to be destroyed and remade again, which is what recycling does," Wenzlau said. "We always say reduce, reuse, recycle. What we're learning is that recycling is not as benign as we think."

Wenzlau and Bobel both said, however, that the best way to address waste disposal is to make sure that recycled materials get reused after they get hauled out. City staff is confident that the new program achieves that, particularly when it comes to mixed paper, Bobel said.

"This is actually one of the best opportunities for true recycling because you're taking fiber and you're making fiber," Bobel said. "Here's an opportunity with a pulp and paper mill to retain fiber and make new paper."

Comments

Bystander
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 25, 2022 at 10:42 am
Bystander, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on May 25, 2022 at 10:42 am

Why is it that on clean up days the trucks come round and collect all our sorted, labeled and usable stuff, and put it into a dump truck, squash it, and send it to the landfill?

We were told when these started that they would be opportunities to share our reusable items and this definitely happened the first time round at least in my neighborhood. The items I placed outside were greatly reduced in number as people who thought they could reuse them were able to collect an old bike, a garden chair and some large kids toys. Now the old office chair, book case and lamp that I left out and could possibly be used by others was just thrown into the trash truck and destroyed as I stood and watched!

It is time to stop this practice of pretending that it is a method of recycling.


Barron Park Denizen
Registered user
Barron Park
on May 25, 2022 at 11:29 am
Barron Park Denizen, Barron Park
Registered user
on May 25, 2022 at 11:29 am

It's unbelievable that the City will spend $1,200,000 annually for the comfort of knowing where all the recycling goes, even if completely "knowing" the final destination is infeasible. Our modest-sized town cannot keep being viewed by Council and Staff as a plump golden goose for frivolous expenses such as this. And more taxes and fees, such as the business tax, are being thought up--why?, when there's $1,200,000 to fritter away.

Over 10 years, that is $12,000,000, which is badly needed elsewhere. As noted in this space before, the City government has two top priorities that have lots of zeroes: (1) the four unfunded (and not-yet-designed) rail crossings, which could total $1,000,000,000 even before the current fierce inflation; and (2) the City's unfunded pension liabilities, for which no set number has been defined but which is said to be around $600,000,000. Both of those figures are growing fast. How will they ever be paid?

Yet our Council and Staff worry about silly things.


NeilsonBuchanan
Registered user
Downtown North
on May 25, 2022 at 12:16 pm
NeilsonBuchanan, Downtown North
Registered user
on May 25, 2022 at 12:16 pm

I would rather pay my share of the $1.2 million new costs. The general fund should not have slack to absorb unexpected costs such as this. This would satisfy the accountability and transparency goals of the Council. Don't corrupt the cost and revenue centers.


Ferdinand
Registered user
Barron Park
on May 25, 2022 at 1:24 pm
Ferdinand , Barron Park
Registered user
on May 25, 2022 at 1:24 pm

I agree with NB, RAISE the rates before removing from city funds! Also, consider lowering the rates for those who may only put garbage/recycling out biweekly or monthly.

Overall I'm thankful there is finally some action being taken regarding our unknown recyclables (although I asked where things were going more than 3 years ago!). Although it might seem frivolous to some, why shouldn't we be responsible for our own consumption, rather than secretly trashing (literally) other poorer countries who may need income at any cost to their health, the watershed, and the beauty of their countryside? It could stimulate more reputable business practices outside the US, which could result in renewing some contracts elsewhere.

There are lot's of sites online if you're unsure how to reduce your recyclables. Here is CalRecycle (Web Link If you only did the following you could probably stop there:
- Examine what is in your recycle bin and challenge yourself to stop buying it
- Buy little/no plastic bottled drinks and foods in rigid plastics
- Shop the deals at our fabulous farmers' markets, affordable for most produce


Bob Wenzlau
Registered user
Crescent Park
on May 25, 2022 at 5:58 pm
Bob Wenzlau, Crescent Park
Registered user
on May 25, 2022 at 5:58 pm

A couple of clarifications. The authorization only provides permission for the Staff to negotiate, but does not allow them to enter a contract. Therefore, no payment is authorized in this vote. Second, this does not come from the General Fund but rather the Refuse Enterprise Fund. The relevance is it would not pull monies that the General Fund normally targets.

A frustration is that our city is ostensibly taking on a state issue. However the state, and even our local legislators, have not been responsive to Palo Alto's concern. Our legislators dance to their own music, where in my best-of-worlds, the legislators would have a structured relationship with our city to support local needs in Sacramento. Our state is focused on keeping materials out of landfill, and look the other way to the adverse consequence of the policy which enables shipping waste to Southeast Asia so they can hit their landfill diversion metrics. I welcome Becker or Berman to step up on this topic, so far they have not, even though it is a strong community concern.

I also invite our City not to "green wash" us with all the recycling promotions. Current representations are not honest about the adverse impact. Their goal is to keep us "trained" and not disrupt the flow even though it has a dark endpoint. Let's tell it like it is in our promotions.

I appreciate the Weekly's coverage of this topic, as the coverage elevates the story. Palo Alto is at the national forefront on this topic. While I don't see eye-to-eye with staff on this, the staff has raised awareness in the Bay Area, and more jurisdictions, like San Jose, may start adding to the push for a more responsible waste management strategy. Palo Alto led in curbside, composting, zero waste, and now we lead in responsible recycling (or land disposal), if recycling is not feasible.


Mondoman
Registered user
Green Acres
on May 25, 2022 at 8:56 pm
Mondoman, Green Acres
Registered user
on May 25, 2022 at 8:56 pm

On another sustainability-related issue with Greenwaste, why are we now forced to drive all the way up to San Carlos to dispose of items that won't fit in our recycling bins? Could we not have made a deal with Mountain View to use their Recycing Center? I am glad that at least we have a household hazardous waste dropoff in Palo Alto that is open every Saturday morning.


William Hitchens
Registered user
Mountain View
on May 27, 2022 at 11:56 am
William Hitchens, Mountain View
Registered user
on May 27, 2022 at 11:56 am

"With the market in flux, many nations directed their plastic waste to ad hoc dumps and landfills in countries like Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam." This wasn't made clear in the previous article on GreenWaste. I hope that PA avoids all dealings with them in the future. Hope that their new brokers and end recyclers are a heck of a lot more transparent in the future.


Online Name
Registered user
Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
on May 27, 2022 at 12:07 pm
Online Name, Embarcadero Oaks/Leland
Registered user
on May 27, 2022 at 12:07 pm

"I agree with NB, RAISE the rates before removing from city funds! Also, consider lowering the rates for those who may only put garbage/recycling out biweekly or monthly."

hat proposal has been proposed and ignored by CPAU for as long as I can remember.

Let people get vacation cancellations just like they do for newspapers!


Citizen
Registered user
Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on May 28, 2022 at 11:10 am
Citizen, Another Palo Alto neighborhood
Registered user
on May 28, 2022 at 11:10 am

A lot more single use waste should be compostable, or compostable with processing if it needs to behave like plastic for it’s single use.

Those little plastic things that hold clothing together. Those just become micro plastic pollution. Stickers on produce. No excuse that those aren’t ALL compostable. Security seals on personal care items with expiration dates. Disposable single use cutlery and hangers for infants clothing (nobody wants those not even shops who toss them). Bubble wrap for shipping. All packing peanuts. Clear window plastic film in personal care item boxes.

There’s a brand of chocolate from Switzerland—Alter Eco? Their truffle wrappers look just like others but they’re compostable. Honestly, why not bandaids? Shampoo bottles and water bottles (the kind that acts like plastic til it’s processed). Plastic film to control weeds in farming (compostable that has to processed). Plastic film on a lot of big items for construction and food — if it’s the kind that doesn’t break down til processed, it could save contractors a lot of money to divert waste.

Some professor at Iowa State? Colorado? I can’t remember, demonstrated a practical way to turn plastic back into oil. Hey, if carbon capture and/or removal ramps up, it could be a reasonable eco friendly source, mining our landfills and using it instead of letting it leach for a billion years.

The disconnect in the life cycle makes it hard for everyone to settle on options that work together to avoid pollution and reduce resource use.

But those little plastic things that hold clothing together. Those should compostable.


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