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Zero Waste - Is Palo Alto Paying Enough Attention?

Original post made by Leon Xia, Greenmeadow, on Jul 10, 2017

If I were to claim that Palo Alto could be capable of generating close to zero waste, you would most likely be skeptical. However, the idea of eliminating waste within a community is not new and even some large cities such as Berkeley, Calif. have already been working to achieve a complete Zero Waste community.

Since 1990, Palo Alto has made successful efforts to improve the sustainability of the city. We have aided the growth of electric transport by increasing the number of charging stations. Additionally, the city has worked towards creating zero net energy buildings by setting up energy ordinances that dictated new electric vehicle requirements and cost-efficient studies to help make commercial buildings more energy-efficient and cost-efficient.

However, a prominent issue that continues to linger is the waste issue. In just the 2016-17 school year, the Palo Alto Unified School District had total service levels of 99 cubic yards of trash, 163 cubic yards of recyclables and 103 cubic yards of compost. With this amount of waste being recycled and composted, having less than a third of the schools’ waste being trash doesn’t seem too concerning. But unlike recyclables and compost, it is difficult to prevent trash from ending up in the landfill. With each category of waste comes a resource recovery process that helps reduce what goes into landfills. The recycling process allows us to reuse materials while composting can be used to generate a source of sustainable energy. However, with trash, options are very limited. Facilities can either choose the costly route of incinerating the trash and polluting the environment or compacting it and tossing it into the ground. This means that any trash we generate will most likely stay with us forever. If we don’t want take action to reduce what goes into our landfills, we will eventually run out of space for our trash.

The goal of Zero Waste is to create a community where everything we consume can be reused or recycled. This way, nothing ends up in landfills. The problem with landfills are that they are harmful for the environment. They produce harmful greenhouse gases that get trapped in Earth’s atmosphere and are toxic for the surrounding environment. There is a lot that we can do to reduce what is going into our landfills. Here is a quick rundown of some basic procedures to help reduce waste:

1. Make trash the last option.
Many people see the black, blue, and green bins and immediately aim for the black bin. However, aiming for the trash ensures that waste will build up in our landfills.

2. Purchase reusable and recyclable items.
Eliminating waste starts with using products that can not become waste. For example when buying food, make sure the containers are recyclable. Excess food can be used as compost. Buy reusable grocery bags, recycle paper bags, and stop buying plastic bags that can’t be recycled.

3. Familiarize yourself with recyclables
Make it a habit to recycle. I’m sure no one is new to recycling, but sometimes we forget what can and cannot be recycled. Learning what can be recycled reduces the possibility of placing recyclables in the trash.

The actions we take right now can have serious impacts on our environment in the future. Working towards Zero Waste is an unselfish way to improve our environment. The United States Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 42 percent of greenhouse gases that go into our atmosphere are caused through production of goods. If we reduce how much we produce by reusing and recycling, we can make a huge impact on the climate and reduce the amount of harmful greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide.

In order for Zero Waste to be possible, everyone in the community must be properly educated on Zero Waste. We must start this education at a young age. Bringing a more rigid and strict approach to the importance of recycling during the early years of school will help them start practicing good habits early. Children can also teach their parents how to recycle in ensure everyone is aware of the proper procedures. Another key factor of making sure our community is actively working towards Zero Waste is to have the city of Palo Alto government enforcing strict ordinances overseeing our waste placement.

Leon Xia
GetInvolved Palo Alto, Summer Intern
Zero Waste Project with PAUSD
Mentor: Rebecca Navarro

Comments (3)

Posted by Office Park
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 11, 2017 at 8:44 am

Office Park is a registered user.

Keep in mind that most of the waste in Palo Alto is generated by the numerous offices, businesses and especially, some large corporations.

The residents don't generate a fraction of the total waste in this city.


Posted by rick
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 11, 2017 at 4:16 pm

rick is a registered user.

How much landfill is generated when demolishing a house?

Questioning numbers in the article, 99 cubic yards of trash from all of PAUSD totaled over the entire 2016-17 school year? Sounds low to me.


Posted by Leon Xia
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Jul 11, 2017 at 5:35 pm

Leon Xia is a registered user.

The data on how much waste the PAUSD generates should say, "In just the 2016-17 school year, the Palo Alto Unified School District had WEEKLY service levels of 99 cubic yards of trash, 163 cubic yards of recyclables and 103 cubic yards of compost."

I did not catch this in my editing.


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