Orange juice box? Yes. Full nail polish bottle? No. Bubble Wrap envelope? No. Batteries? Yes, if in a clear plastic bag on top of the blue recyclable bin.
Even for a savvy group of Los Altos Environmental Commission members and other guests, separating trash from salvageable treasure can be difficult.
It’s a Saturday morning, and Mission Trail Waste Systems Public Relations Manager Teresa Montgomery is sorting through several boxes of household trash to help local residents identify items that can be recycled. Curious local residents are gathered at a forum organized by the commission to learn more about how they can reduce their landfill footprint and capitalize on home composting.
The city’s waste management provider since 2010, Mission Trail is working to change residents’ behavior and perspective on waste and recycling.
Los Altos residents are instructed to divide their waste into three streams: recycling in a large blue bin, organic waste in a medium-sized green bin and all other trash in a small gray bin.
With a diversion rate of 70 percent, Los Altos exceeds the 2011 national average of 34.7 percent, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. But Mission Trail thinks residents can cut waste even further.
Benefits of composting
To keep more trash from hitting the curb, Mission Trail offers free worm bins and backyard compost bins for food and yard trimmings. In addition to fruit peels, food scraps and garden weeds, items like pizza boxes, paper towels and coffee filters can be tossed in the home compost bin.
"No truck has to come by, and you get the benefit of being able to reuse it in your own yard," said Montgomery of the advantages of putting organic waste to work in a home composting system.
Setting up a compost bin is simple and doesn’t take much more than a few feet of space to install.
Composting boasts many environmental benefits. Unlike in the landfill, where greenhouse gases like methane are generated, when food is composted, less harmful carbon dioxide is produced. Flushing food through a food processor into the sewer system is also deceptively inefficient. Mission Trail notes that it takes more water to purify contaminated water at a treatment plant than it does to treat mature compost.
With just a little care, a home compost or worm bin can generate nutrient-rich fertilizer for the garden in a few months, or as little as 20 days with the right conditions. To date, approximately 300 Los Altos residents have taken advantage of Mission Trail’s offer of free compost bins.
Less is more
Reaching zero waste may seem impossible, but reducing consumption and recycling is a normal way of life for many Los Altos residents.
"It’s easy because I’ve developed a system," said Los Altos resident Zahra Ardehali of her focus on sustainability. "If we change our habits, we’ll find it so much easier to do the right thing."
Ardehali is putting her passion to work as a member of the Environmental Commission, where she volunteers to educate neighbors and advocate for greener policy in Los Altos. In addition to organizing the city’s inaugural forum on composting with Mission Trail, Ardehali offers insight into why and how she lives a low-waste life.
Since moving to Los Altos a dozen years ago, Ardehali has never used any chemicals on her home landscape or backyard garden and orchard. Instead, she seeks natural solutions and enriches soil with compost created from food waste. Her front yard may not be as perfect as a treated landscape, she said, but she knows that she’s doing her part to "keep the earth safe."
"We are all responsible to the next generation," Ardehali said. "The earth is something on loan to me, and I have to be careful."
To minimize her trash output, Ardehali reduces the potential for excess beginning at the point of purchase. By buying spices, grains, nuts and other household staples from bulk bins, she limits the plastic and cardboard she brings home. Instead of buying containers of yogurt, she makes her own.
When she must buy packaged items like toothpaste, makeup and hair-care products, she looks for those made with biodegradable packaging.
At home, Ardehali reuses plastic bags, containers and even the extra adhesive paper between rows of stamps in creative ways. In short, she doesn’t throw anything away unless it’s absolutely necessary.
Ardehali recycles her food waste in her backyard composter and scatters eggshells on her garden as fertilizer. In the winter months, she harvests kale, mint, citrus and as many homegrown vegetables and fruits as she can.
Even with an intentional focus on sustainability, Ardehali admits that she has yet to reach zero waste. She still treks to the curb with trash several times a year, so her work continues, a personal mission she hopes will inspire others. k
Los Altos Environmental Commission Recycling Forum - Photos by Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier