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Palo Alto florist can no longer afford $100 compost fees

By Georgia Wells | 7 Nov 2010

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Compost, seen here being fed into a machine, is no longer a free service to Palo Alto businesses. (Photo courtesy of GreenWaste)

Werner Rogmans, owner of Stanford Floral Design, fulfilled a childhood dream in 1984 when he gave up a large flower business in Germany to open a shop in California. But upon arriving in environmentally conscious Palo Alto, he was surprised that the city didn’t take garden waste.

So he did what he could on his own, even raising chickens to enrich his home garden.

Earlier this year, the city finally began taking compost — yard trimmings and food waste to be turned into a mixture that improves soil — and Rogmans was among the first in line. He was proud of the amount of rich yard waste he was donating every week. He saw it as a win-win.

Today, circumstances have changed. Faced with a sour economy, with more customers regarding flowers as an expensive and disposable luxury, and with the city charging businesses $100 a month for composting, Rogmans has stopped participating in Palo Alto’s recycling program. It is an option he can no longer afford, he said.

“Why do they charge small businesses fees for compost, when they give it free to residents?” he asked, printing out the day’s flower orders and shaking his head.

Nearly 75 percent of Palo Alto’s waste is recycled, substantially higher than the national average of 32 percent. Recycling has always been a free service, and in July 2009 the city added free composting. “Our citizens are very conscious of their impact on the environment, and the city has made it very easy to recycle,” City Council member Larry Klein said.

With so little waste going to the landfill and so much being diverted as compost or recycling, the city has become a victim of its success, Klein added, explaining that it can no longer cover all the expenses with a flat rate for garbage.

Rogmans assembles a military funeral flower arrangement, which produces many clippings he can't afford to compost. (Photo: Georgia Wells)

On Oct. 1, commercial compost fees were imposed — nearly equal to garbage charges — while residential compost remained free. Garbage fees then were increased.

Many residents have gone to city council meetings to complain. GreenWaste, the company responsible for garbage, recycling and compost in Palo Alto, declined to comment on whether business owners other than Rogmans have canceled services.

A sixth-generation florist who started making flower arrangements as a child, Rogmans took over his parents’ business in Germany in 1969.  “In Germany, we always did compost.  When I left in 1984, we had six or seven containers for different kinds of plastics, metals and glass,” he said.  “When I came here, I found just one garbage can for everything.”

Still, he did what he could to be green.  He bought the flowers for his business locally when possible and composted in his garden.  He also kept two hens. Rogmans used to have a rooster, but got rid of him because “he was treating the two ladies very poorly.”

On a recent day, Rogmans was in his shop preparing an arrangement for a military funeral. He gazed at the red, white and blue display critically.  The flowers were not quite what he would choose.  He stood on a carpet of flower clippings from the day’s work.  “All of this stuff is compostable,” he said, gesturing to the piles of leaves.

As much as Rogmans supports composting, he doesn’t see the $100 monthly charge as feasible in today’s flower market.  “In America, the business is dying. Flowers in America are seen as a luxury. In Germany, people buy flowers like milk and bread,” Rogmans said.

He does what he can to save money.  The shelves in his back room are piled high with an assortment of vases he picks up at local second-hand stores.

At his first Palo Alto location on Emerson Street, Rogmans once hired six employees.  He is now down to two part-time employees.

Palo Alto is trying to find different solutions.  “We have a cost study underway, working to come up with a rate structure that will be more sophisticated in how we allocate service charges,” Council member Klein said. When the report is finished early next year, the city council will revisit the charges. “I’d be interested in hearing everybody’s input as we move to a new rate structure in 2011,” Klein said.

Meanwhile Rogmans is still not sure what he will do with all his flower trimmings.

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