BioCycle Magazine

Principles and Practice · Quick-to-Implement Odor Reduction Techniques

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The city of close to one million has already exceeded its 50 percent recycling rate as it prepares to launch a new organics curbside collection program in 2002.

SAN JOSE, California recently hit — and exceeded — its 50 percent landfill diversion goal, due in large part to the yard trimmings collection program for its 930,000 residents. The city in the heart of the digital divide has submitted a 53 percent landfill diversion rate to the California Integrated Waste Management Board for review and is currently awaiting approval. (Under AB939, California jurisdictions were mandated to reach 50 percent by 2000.)

Since 1991, San Jose has been managing a successful curbside yard trimmings collection program that collected nearly 130,000 tons of material in 2000. New contractors who will start their service in July 2002 will collect and process all the yard trimmings and, beginning in 2003, will initiate cocollection of residential food residuals and yard trimmings, enhancing San Jose’s organics program. “Together, with our contractors, we are implementing a shared vision of success and creating the future for organic wastes,” says Michele Young, program manager with the San Jose’s Environmental Services Department.


The city’s organic waste future builds on the success of its past. “In the Environmental Services office, we have a poster listing our objectives of Diversion, Customer Service and Cost. Those objectives drive our decisions,” Young says as she discusses the history of waste management in San Jose.

The city has responsibility for the residential waste stream and related diversion programs. To maximize customer service and minimize cost, it does not award citywide contracts to one company. Instead, it divides the service areas up and selects two contractors. The city’s contracts specify performance goals and in return, the contractors are guaranteed the materials from the districts they are awarded under a long-term contract.

“Using two service providers encourages a competitive environment for diversion and program costs, as well as assuring service provisions for residents in the event of any problems,” explains Young. “In order to coordinate the process, we meet regularly with the contractors to discuss service issues and determine ways to address concerns on either side of the table. From the start, our contractors have been looking to increase diversion rates. They are always ready to compost more and we are always looking for ways to maximize educational programs and boost compost markets. Together, we take the process full circle.”

The contractors influence education and customer service efforts by letting the city know about problems with contamination and collection compliance. While the processors have complete responsibility for marketing their products, the city provides assistance in the form of sponsoring compost research and developing a network of contacts in the landscape and agricultural industries who buy compost and soil amendments. The soil amendments produced must be on the list of approved products outlined in the processing contracts, including compost, wood and fiber mulch, green soil amendment, topsoil additive, cogeneration fuel and animal bedding. To foster the highest and best use of organic materials, the city provides an incentive payment for materials that are fully composted and does not allow any organic material collected in San Jose to be used as landfill alternative daily cover (ADC).


Zanker Road Resource Management and Browning Ferris Industries (BFI), which also operates the city-contracted Newby Island Landfill, hold the original contracts for collection and processing of yard trimmings. Those contracts officially end in July, 2002. A loose collection method is used to service most residents. “We allow people to set out unlimited yard trimmings the night before collection, as long as they’re in 5-foot by 5-foot piles,” Young says.

A wheel loader with a claw-like bucket attachment surrounds and scoops up the piles, emptying them into a rear loading truck. The collection method is effective because residents can set out unlimited amounts, and haulers can spot contamination in the piles. Contaminated piles are not collected until the resident is notified and removes the unacceptable materials. “Eighty-nine percent of the residents in San Jose are very satisfied with the yard trimmings collection program, according to annual surveys. Only about two percent of our customer service calls pertain to yard trimmings, and fewer of those are complaints about residues left in the streets by leaf piles,” Young notes. On streets where private roads, red curbs, bike lanes or congestion don’t allow for loose collection, residents set out yard trimmings in tarps and carts. These “non-loose” routes will help the city when it begins its residential food residuals collection pilot in 2003.

Between 1999 and 2001, the city built on its successful residential yard trimmings program with two commercial food residuals composting pilots. (See “Testing Options for Commercial Food Residuals Diversion,” June, 2000.) The one-year pilot was a result of a 1998 study determining food residuals and nonrecyclable paper comprise 24 percent of landfilled material. The contractors that participated in the commercial collection project were BFI for collection and composting and Waste Management collection paired with Z-Best Products for composting services. The pilots were funded in part by grants from the City of San Jose.

Both companies report the pilot was successful and are continuing to investigate the best methods for composting food residuals from the commercial waste stream. Large commercial generators, like grocery stores and restaurants, are targeted for service. San Jose has an open market for collecting garbage and recyclables from its 25,000 businesses, so the haulers have to keep pricing of this service competitive. There is no additional charge for collecting food residuals, and generators with loads high in organics are targeted. The program has resulted in lower garbage bills for commercial generators, new business opportunities for BFI and Z-Best, increased compost supply for local growers and landscapers, and an increase in waste diversion for San Jose.


Studies done during the commercial organics composting pilots showed that if residential food residuals were composted, the city’s overall diversion rate could go well beyond 60 percent. With current contracts expiring in 2002, it was a good opportunity to move forward with program changes, including food residuals collection. San Jose put out a Request for Proposals (RFP) in April, 2000 for its residential garbage, recycling, and yard trimmings contracts. “For the organics program, we wanted a contractor that would work with mixed collection (separated yard trimmings, and food residuals and yard trimmings) and could process yard trimmings and all of the city’s residential food residuals,” Young says. “We requested proposals from contractors that would be responsible for the whole collection and processing life of compostable waste.”

The contract definition of compostable waste in the 2002 contracts is: Vegetable and other food scraps including meat, dairy products, kitchen grease, and bones; Paper and cardboard that have been contaminated with food, fat or kitchen grease; Compostable paper associated with food preparation or food consumption, such as paper towels, paper plates, tissues, waxed paper and waxed cardboard; and Other materials, as mutually agreed by the contractor and the city, that are capable of being composted and would otherwise be disposed of as garbage. The contractors must be permitted to handle all of the above materials, and the contractors and the city will need to decide if all of these materials will be included in outreach to the residents, Young says.

Green Waste Recovery (a Zanker company) and Norcal Waste Systems were awarded contracts in March, 2001 for the collection period that will start in July, 2002. The contracts include organics collection and processing and street sweeping. Food residuals will not be collected until January, 2003, allowing the city and contractors to work out all of the collection details before new program details are introduced to residents. “This is going to be a big change. All residents will have a new hauler, the method of collection will ultimately change to cart collection for residential yard trimmings, and both contractors will have to make the transition to food residuals collection and processing,” Young explains.


The Z-Best Products’ composting site receives the yard trimmings from Zanker’s collection contract with San Jose. The yard trimmings are composted in open air windrows and will continue to be handled that way when the Green Waste Recovery contract starts in July 2002.

When Z-Best got involved with the commercial organics composting pilot in 1999, it was decided to apply to the state for a full solid waste processing permit, which would enable the company to handle food residuals. “We have invested over $3 million in this plant. The full permit gives us the flexibility to play with the tonnage numbers and maximize our processing capabilities,” says Michael Gross, Z-Best marketing manager. Adds Young: “This company saw the opportunity for a long-term investment when they applied for the commercial food residuals composting pilot. They know this is what the future of organics processing looks like.”

The Z-Best site is located 40 miles south of San Jose between the cities of Gilroy and Hollister on 157 agriculturally-zoned acres. The facility is permitted to process 500 tons/day of food residuals. Z-Best uses the Compost Technologies, Inc. (CTI) enclosed aerated static pile technology for the commercial organics. Yard trimmings are composted in windrows. (See “Composting Yard Trimmings and Food Residuals for Greater Diversion,” October, 2001.)

Gross says the company is always trying to stay ahead of the curve. In doing so, it will run a pilot project on its own to sort a small segment of residential municipal solid waste (MSW) to give itself and San Jose a distinct picture of what to emphasize in public education efforts aimed at the city’s 198,000 single family homes and 85,000 multifamily dwellings. Single family and multifamily residuals will be processed separately during the pilot. “When we know what’s in people’s trash cans, we’ll know how to educate them about what’s recyclable, what’s compostable, and what needs to be landfilled,” Young says. “It’s really very exciting to see our contractors driving the process.” The contractors want to make the highest quality soil amendments possible. By working with San Jose on educating its residents, the organics stream is cleaner and higher quality products can be made.

Z-Best recently installed a mechanical and hand-sort preprocessing line for mixed loads of commercial organics that it plans to use for the residential stream. Those organics will be blended with yard trimmings to make Z-Best Landscape Compost. Other feedstocks are used in Z-Best’s certified organic compost. Gross says last year 60 percent of the facility’s products were sold to landscapers and 40 percent were sold to farmers. That number has a tendency to flip back and forth depending on the market, he says.

Norcal will be processing the yard trimmings and food residuals at a site it is developing in the Gilroy area. It is installing the Ag-Bag enclosed aerated static pile system for food residuals composting. Norcal operates a regional composting facility in Dixon, California (using the same technology) that receives materials from San Francisco’s Fantastic Three program. The three-stream Fantastic Three program includes separate collection and composting of residential organics, consisting of all food scraps, soiled paper and yard trimmings. Norcal has worked closely with San Francisco to complete the roll out of residential curbside collection and composting program. (See “San Francisco Takes Residential Organics Collection Full-Scale,” February, 2000.)

“Obviously, this company already sees where the future of composting is going. They have successfully done in San Francisco what we’re looking to do here,” Young says. The company also has experience working with trilingual literature and follow-up educational efforts. It has achieved high customer satisfaction in the San Francisco program.


The 2002 contracts have a potential for 11 years of service by the selected contractors. The materials currently collected in San Jose have a very low contamination rate (about one percent). The new contracts require diversion of 95 percent of all organic residuals collected. The program will start in July, 2002 with collection of loose yard trimmings and cart collection from 12 percent of the city which has mandatory cart collection, as well as from those residents who subscribe to cart collection service. The city will use the mandatory cart routes for the food residuals pilots in 2003, and plans to offer citywide collection in 2004 after the infrastructure has been tested.

San Jose uses a Pay As You Throw (PAYT) program which enables residents to subscribe to the smallest garbage cart and experience the lowest rates by recycling more. When the food residuals program is offered citywide, residents who want to reduce their garbage can size by composting their food residuals will be able to use a cart for yard trimmings and food residuals collection. The city chose the phase-in to avoid changing the program overnight for residents who like the convenience of loose yard trimmings collection.

Another program improvement that will come with the new contracts supports the city’s backyard composting program, which aims to involve residents in direct recycling, while reducing program costs. Contractors will be distributing compost bins directly to residents who order them from the city’s composting program. This service further reflects the joint effort of contractors and city staff to increase diversion, and reduce the amount of material that is collected and processed.

In the meantime, the city meets regularly with the new contractors to talk about how to get ready for the upcoming system. “We work together to negotiate all of the stakeholders’ needs and requirements,” Young says. “And we rely on the contractors to be experts in their fields, helping to lead our program forward.”

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