Consequences of Conservation
March 23, 2012 - By Joseph Perkins
Palo Alto residents have responded admirably to the city’s “Zero Waste” campaign, which aims to divert almost all the city’s trash from landfills to recycling centers by 2021.
In fact, residents have done such a good job of recycling — the city’s diversion rate has risen all the way to 80 percent — the city’s Department of Public Works frets it isn’t generating enough trash collection revenue to pay its bills.
So last week, the Palo Alto City Council decided to jack up residential trash collection rates for the second time since last year.
This is the kind of green-washed bait-and-switch that has become all too familiar to residents of not only Palo Alto, but many other cities and counties throughout the state.
Local governments mandate a conservation measure, like recycling, in a bow to “sustainability.” They promise the populace that, by getting with the program, they not only will do their part to help the environment, they also will save their households a few bucks.
But in never works out that way, as residents of such Santa Mateo County cities as Burlingame Hills, San Mateo Highlands, Baywood Park, Belmont and San Carlos have discovered. All have embraced recycling. And all have been rewarded with higher trash collection rates.
Such an outcome was entirely predictable. Because when local governments consider whether to undertake some conservation program or another, like Palo Alto’s Zero Waste campaign, they almost always overestimate the putative benefits, while underestimating the costs.
Pay For Itself?
The San Mateo County cities thought their waste-reduction programs would somehow pay for themselves. They thought they would collect all the used paper, plastic, glass, aluminum and other waste materials, haul it to recycling centers, process it, sell it and turn a nice profit for their cities that could be reinvested in their waste-reduction programs.
But it hasn’t worked that way. That’s because it costs $50 to process a ton of waste material, according to the National Solid Wastes Management Association, while that recycled material can only be sold for $30.
Neither Palo Alto’s Zero Waste campaign nor any other government recycling program here in California has proven economically sustainable. All require some form of subsidy.
The problem for the cities is how to pay for recycling without running afoul of Proposition 218, the state law that prohibits cities from charging more for services — like trash collection — than the services actually cost.
The city of Palo Alto has come up with an all-too-clever solution: It ginned up a so-called “cost of services” study to determine how much it costs the city to provide its residents trash collection services. The study concluded that the city could increase its monthly rate for trash collection by as much as 121 percent and comply with Prop. 218.
But the study misleads. In calculating the cost of providing trash collection, it includes recycling as a free-of-charge service. That means that Palo Alto residents will grossly overpay to have their un-recyclable waste hauled to landfills to cover the city’s cost of collecting recyclable waste.
Palo Alto city officials are persuaded that the city’s waste-reduction goals justify its attempted circumvention of Prop. 218.
“People living in the area don’t recycle just because it’s a nice thing to do,” Phil Bobel, interim Assistant Director of Public Works, told the Peninsula Press. “We recognize that it’s part of changing behavior and we have to pay for it.”