Although a proposed plastic bag ban has captured more attention, another zero-waste proposal has several cities up in arms: The Alameda County Waste Management Authority wants to make recycling mandatory and violators subject to penalties.

That could mean fines of up to $1,000 for putting things like newspapers, aluminum cans and food scraps in the garbage instead of recycle and compost bins.

The recycling mandate doesn't actually change the many tons of waste generated by Alameda County's 1.5 million residents. But it could divert as much as 700,000 tons of paper, bottles, cans and leaves that could be recycled or composted from ending up in the Altamont and Vasco Road landfills.

The goal is to divert 90 percent of materials that could be recycled or composted, such as paper, plant debris and food, from city dumps by 2020. Right now 69 percent gets composted or recycled. Phase 1 would begin in July with businesses, haulers and the owners or managers of multifamily buildings such as apartments.

The plan begins with paper, cardboard, food and beverage containers and a variety of similar materials. Phase 2 would start July 2014 and expand to mandatory composting. San Diego, San Carlos, San Francisco and Sacramento are among other California cities that have put mandatory commercial recycling rules on the books.

But not all Alameda County cities embraced the idea, at least as it was spelled out initially in a draft environmental impact report released in September.

Dublin, Fremont, Hayward, Livermore and Pleasanton worried the mandate would require more trucks, more miles driven and additional routes to compensate for the additional collection of recycling and compostable organics. The cities also worried about the cost to themselves, rate payers and commercial haulers.

The California Refuse Recycling Council, a trade association of haulers, processors, recyclers and composters, also objected to the "one-size-fits-all" proposal that covers 17 Alameda County jurisdictions.
In addition, the association warned that the emissions from additional composting would be a financial burden on the operators, who might have to invest in technology and purchase emission offsets.

The association suggested turning to anaerobic digestion, a process by which food waste, yard trimmings and other organic matter are converted into energy instead of being thrown away or hauled off to disintegrate in plants. San Jose is building such an anaerobic digestion facility to process all of the city's commercial organics under a new citywide collection system.

The Waste Authority members would support a composting facility in Alameda County but did not include one in the draft EIR.

Instead, Alameda County would continue to transport its compostables to five sites outside the county, including to the San Joaquin Valley area, but in larger amounts.

The environmental cost, however, evens out, according to the Waste Management Authority.

On one hand, more trucks will be required to haul the dense organic material. On the other, garbage and recycling trucks would be making fewer unnecessary trips to landfills and transfer stations.

The Waste Management Authority rejected the piecemeal alternative that would allow cities to adopt their own ordinances. The ambitious environmental goals adopted by the agency require a consolidated countywide effort instead of city-by-city piecemeal efforts, the draft EIR concluded. Besides, the proposal as it now is written includes an opt-out clause and cities that already have a commercial recycling program that meets the requirements in the proposal will not be required to change or expand service.

The Waste Management Authority board will discuss the plastic bag ban as well as the economic impact and other details of the mandatory recycling