Los Altos Cleans Up – Businesses and Residents Join City’s Effort to Reduce Waste
By Peg Champion, GreenTown Correspondent
“It’s a win-win situation – good for our bottom line and for the environment,” says Ron Piazza, store manager of Draeger’s Market in Los Altos, describing the store’s waste-reduction program. “While garbage pickups cost us money, composting and recycling are free.”
Albert Deras, Draeger’s receiving clerk, checks the recycling and compost bins before pickup by Mission Trail. Deras leads Draeger’s waste reduction training program, that teaches staff how to use the bins and properly dispose of its waste. Photo credit: Mission Trail Waste Systems
The downtown grocery store is just one of the Los Altos businesses that has joined the city’s model waste-reduction program. The goal is to reduce the amount of trash that is hauled to the landfill by composting organic food and yard wastes and increasing recycling. Following a two-year effort by Los Altos City Council, the Environmental Commission, city staff, consultants and the GreenTown Los Altos Waste Management Committee, the council unanimously voted on March 23, 2010, to award a 10-year waste management contract to Mission Trail Waste Systems. Mission Trail launched the program — including expanded recycling, organics and household hazardous waste collection, plus a public-education effort — two years ago, in September 2010.
Piazza described the transition process as surprisingly smooth. “Honestly? I was skeptical,” says Piazza. “I worried about training employees in a new system and how difficult the learning curve would be.” In fact, “it was easy,” says Albert Deras, Draeger’s receiving clerk. “Once you learn what to do, it becomes automatic.” Mission Trail representatives came to the store to conduct a free waste assessment and provided composting and recycling bins. As staff was trained in the new system and the store’s recycling and composting ramped up, Mission Trail supplied more bins and the store’s garbage disposal was reduced accordingly. “We went from three or four garbage dumpsters a week to just one. The cost savings and positive environmental impact made it well worth our effort.”
According to a February 2012 report provided to the Los Altos Environmental Commission by Mission Trail, the city’s 2011 overall landfill diversion rate was 71 percent, beating Mission Trail’s own 2012 target of 69 percent. “It is my hope that we will achieve a 75 percent diversion rate for this year and 78 percent (required by the city agreement) by the end of 2013,” says Teresa Montgomery, Mission Trail public relations manager.
Montgomery says the residential program in Los Altos is working extremely well, with many families down to using a single 20-gallon garbage cart. “I anticipate that waste reduction and recycling efforts will increase over the next few years, with California’s mandatory recycling law for businesses and apartment complexes, plus several Bay Area single-use plastic bag and Styrofoam bans in effect. Continuing outreach efforts also will help to increase recycling and composting and reduce waste.”
While participation in recycling/organics collection programs is a vast improvement over simply throwing everything in the garbage to be landfilled, it’s even better to implement policy and programs that eliminate waste, says Montgomery. For example, many local grocery stores reward shoppers for bringing their own bags rather than using disposable plastic or paper bags; incentives include weekly drawings for store gift cards, five-cent bag rebates or donations to local non-profits. The State of California also is investigating product stewardship, or Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which places the responsibility for “end-of-life” product disposal on the manufacturers.
Disposal and reclamation expenses would be incorporated into the final product price, better reflecting true environmental costs and shifting disposal costs to a product’s user and producer, instead of to the general public. EPR programs implemented elsewhere have resulted in a significant reduction in packaging.
Chart credit: Information provided by Mission Trail. Graphic by Champion Organic Communications © 2012
“We’re delighted with Mission Trail – they’ve managed a significant program conversion and made excellent progress in the past two years,” says Don Bray, chair of the environmental commission and former co-chair of the GreenTown Waste Management Committee. “The commission will continue to work closely with Mission Trail to understand and define how the processes work.” To keep the city on track for its 2013 diversion goal, he noted an opportunity for further business engagement with the waste program. For Passerelle Investment Company, a real estate development company in downtown Los Altos, sustainability is a guiding principle. Brooke Ray Smith, Passerelle’s planning analyst, says the company likes to “lead by example.” It has a sustainability education program for both its employees and its tenants. “Mission Trail has made it so easy! Free composting and recycling saves businesses money, thus improving their bottom line,” says Smith. Passerelle tenants Peet’s Coffee & Tea and Bumble are two food-service businesses that are successfully participating in the composting and recycling waste initiative.
Margie Suozzo, GreenTown Los Altos chair, commended the city council and environmental commission for their decision to expand recycling and composting in Los Altos. “Thanks to Mission Trail’s single-stream recycling and food waste composting, we saw an immediate and significant increase in Los Altos’ diversion rate. As a result, we extend the life of our landfills, generate less methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and create a useful product that can improve our soil. Everyone who participates is ensuring the health of our community today and for future generations.“
Peg Champion is a member of GreenTown Los Altos and the principal of Champion Organic Communications. She helps businesses tell their sustainability stories (and she always composts her organics.) For more information visit: http://ChampionOrganic.com.
Mission Trail’s Cleanup Program (bulky Items, e-waste, etc.) http://www.missiontrail.com/LosAltos/residential-cleanup.html
Hazardous Waste Hazardous waste like paint, oil, batteries, fluorescent bulbs, toxic cleaners, poisons and sharps require special handling. For information on proper disposal of these items visit: Mission Trail Waste Systems: http://www.missiontrail.com/LosAltos/residential-hazardous.html County of Santa Clara Department of Environmental Health, Household Hazardous Waste Program http://www.hhw.org
Electronic Waste (E-Waste) E-Waste can be recycled through Mission Trail’s Cleanup Program or at approved recycling facilities and drop-off events. http://www.sccgov.org/sites/deh/Hazardous Materials Compliance Division/Household Hazardous Waste Home/Pages/HHW-E-Waste-Page.aspx
Further Information: Zero Waste: http://www.sierraclub.org/committees/zerowaste/climatechange/ EPR: http://www.sierraclub.org/committees/zerowaste/producerresponsibility/ Recycling Anything! http://www.recyclestuff.org/ What Happens to My Recycling? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8CJNQctcswo&noredirect=1