Volunteers dig away at Los Altos' trash problem

Megan Winslow/Town Crier
Los Altos resident Oliver Breitbart, 14, composts a post- farmers’ market meal as GreenTown Los Altos volunteers Barbara O’Reilly and Linda Ziff ask him about the process.

The dark side of outdoor eating in Los Altos gathers in black garbage bags hefted away by Mission Trail Waste Systems. Despite city rules requiring vendors to use compostable food containers, those dishes and their contents end up in downtown trash bins on an irksome scale.

This summer Los Altos residents Barbara O’Reilly and Linda Ziff made it their mission to disrupt those dustbins.

The GreenTown Los Altos volunteers wanted to encourage people to recycle and compost waste at the weekly Los Altos Farmers’ Market and on the Downtown Green, so they launched a summerlong experiment. What elements of receptacle design and social engineering might inspire people to stop behaving badly?

In Los Altos, garbage bins lined with black plastic bags automatically go to the landfill unopened and unsorted, regardless of whether they contain trash, recycling or compostables. O’Reilly and Ziff’s mission: to convince eaters to sort their cups, compostable dishes and napkins into the appropriate bins rather than tossing the armful in the trash.

“Enough already with our complaining about this – let’s see if we can’t just do something different and try to make a change,” O’Reilly said. “What’s the problem? Maybe it’s the signage, maybe it’s the yuck factor – that they don’t want to lift the lid on the recycling bin.”

So for the first month of the market, O’Reilly and Ziff staked out the bins, observing how and where people dropped off refuse and asking them about the signage. They tested using wooden dowels to prop open recycling and compost bins for a hands-free experience. They A/B tested signage on each receptacle, watched people pitch their trash and then interviewed them about how they decided what to put where. What they learned at the market applies to all of the other city events serving food and drink, such as the July Arts & Wine Festival.

“We can work this out, it is not rocket science,” O’Reilly said, and yet implementing effective composting has required coordinating across each individual downtown event planner, the city and the garbage service to ensure that everyone knows which bins are available and which refuse bags ultimately head to the landfill.

Doing the right thing

O’Reilly’s volunteer work has mixed the sterile distance of a scientific observer with the dumpster-diving skills of a raccoon.

“We’d love to see corncobs with their wooden stick going into the compost, but they come with foil wrapped around it, so I’ve been picking off the foil,” she said of tidying up the market’s weekly compost bins.

With help from father/son volunteer teams from the Service of League of Boys, she and Ziff have been wielding trash-picking tongs at the market to pull and sort each Thursday throughout the summer.

The sight of O’Reilly, a diminutive, silver-haired lady, pulling people’s compostables back out of the landfill bin on hot summer evenings may have introduced a gentle element of humiliation to the learning curve.

“People are really trying harder to do the right thing,” she said. “We’ve cut way back on the use of plastic garbage bags, and with helpers and moving stuff from the trash container to the right bins, we’re probably eliminating 35 bags a night that were being used before.”

Clear signage has helped the effort. After testing different verbiage, they ended up labeling the green bins as “Food Waste” and letting diners figure it out from there – though the GreenTown volunteers also have been taping examples of each bin’s target contents visibly to their sides.

Half the battle has been making sure that the correct bins are placed properly in the first place. O’Reilly hopes that as more people learn about GreenTown’s work, they’ll be more likely to plan in advance for their own events.

“We can at least pass on the results we’ve learned to whomever is coordinating,” she said. “A plan for recycling is usually what is missing.”

The Farmers’ Market continues 4-8 p.m. Thursdays on State Street through Sept. 30.

For more information on GreenTown, visit

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