Better Composting Crucial to Reaching Zero Waste

Although the city isn’t likely to meet its goal of zero waste by 2020, San Francisco has dramatically reduced how much it sends to the landfill.

San Francisco’s trash-collection company, Recology, estimates that on any given day, the city produces 5,000 tons of waste — the equivalent of about 3,250 new Toyota Priuses. 

Behind the scenes, workers at Recology plants wade through items ranging from bloody Q-Tips to construction materials, preventing as many items as possible from sitting in its landfill outside Vacaville. Without diverting compostables, much more methane — a greenhouse gas 34 times stronger than carbon dioxide — would be released.

One of San Francisco’s main efforts in reducing environmental impact has been its Zero Waste program, which the Board of Supervisors passed in 2003. The goal was ambitious: to send nothing to landfills by 2020, just 17 short years later. By 2009, everyone in San Francisco was required to separate garbage into recyclables, compostables, and landfill bins.

The city met its 2010 benchmark to divert 75 percent of waste from the landfill and continues to tout its 80 percent diversion rate — though critics say it’s an inflated number with the unconventional method of counting construction debris.

Now, however, the Zero Waste goal is only two years away, and though city officials promote additional strategies like stickers for each bin, the city is no longer within range of meeting its target on time.

The past two years have shown missed reduction goals by a large margin. In 2015, the goal was to send no more than 320,520 tons of waste to the landfill — but according to Department of the Environment data SF Weekly obtained, the city tossed out 386,854 tons instead. The 2016 goal was lowered to 267,100 tons — but instead of tossing out less garbage, San Francisco threw away more: some 404,022 tons in all.

Last year’s goal was 213,680 tons, but by July, the city already sent 236,894 tons to the landfill — meaning we were on track to throw away more than twice as many old mattresses and broken flower pot shards as we aimed for. Still, to put the overall figure in context, the city disposed of 729,717 tons of garbage as recently as 2000, reducing material that ultimately made it to the landfill by 45 percent since it set the 2020 goal.

“Zero waste is a continuous process that requires innovative policies and initiatives,” says Peter Gallotta, spokesperson for the city’s Department of the Environment. “We will continue analyzing performance data and adjusting our tactics as needed to ensure progress toward this goal.”

The department’s latest move is also one of its most significant. Since October, more items have been designated as recyclable and resized Recology bins have been introduced. Black landfill bins, which currently hold 32 gallons, have been slashed in half while the blue recycling bins have doubled to a 64-gallon capacity. (Green compostable bins will still hold 32 gallons.)

Neighborhood by neighborhood, the Department of the Environment is introducing the bins to residents and businesses, starting with the Sunset. On the 12 routes that have exchanged bins, Recology spokesperson Robert Reed says landfill is down 12 percent, recycling is up 8 percent, and composting is up 4 percent.

The two-year rollout presents an opportunity to re-educate residents on an often confusing and potentially anxiety-causing sorting process — which results in food scraps, paper, and cardboard being the most common items wrongly sent to the landfill. Even veteran recyclers tend to default to the black bin when they’re uncertain about something.

“I know the system inside and out, but at home we still grapple,” says Donnie Oliveira, outreach program manager at the Department of the Environment. “The best we can do is make sure people are informed.”

Oliveira says residents often seem excited by now being able to recycle plastic bags, liquid cartons, paper cups, and ice cream containers. Recology’s $11.6 million upgrade to its Pier 96 recycling plant made these new additions possible.

Beyond door-to-door outreach, the department also visits schoolchildren, community events, apartment buildings, and businesses. Auditing bins of residential and commercial users coupled with community surveys can change behavior over time, Gallotta says.

Stickers and printable graphics are also available on the environmental department’s website but officials find many items in the landfill to be compostable and recyclable.

“If everyone used the blue bins and the green bins correctly, we could recycle and compost more than 90 percent of the material that people are generating,” Reed says. “The tools are there.”

Reed emphasizes the impact of the economy on waste produced — a booming tech sector that brings in new residents, events that bring visitors, and holiday shoppers all mean fuller bins. Plus, there’s been a 30 percent increase in issued construction and demolition debris since 2010 that Gallotta says is a large part of the increased tonnage.

But consumers aren’t fated to produce such enormous amounts of waste.

“One of the very best things we can do is highlight simple steps to reduce the amount of trash we make to not make so much garbage to begin with,” Reed says. “ ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle’ really stands the test of time.”

Some steps include carrying a reusable water bottle, coffee cup, and metal spork, as well as avoiding single-use plastics and buying loose fruits and vegetables. Reed personally uses an aluminum jar for toothpaste, since the tubes are tough to recycle.

Officials are well aware that 2020 is just two years away, but are not despairing over the relatively high amount of landfill left to eliminate.

“We’re going to keep our eye on the prize — we’re going to achieve zero waste,” Reed says. “I cannot tell you exactly when, [but] we are going to do everything we can to help our city get there as fast as possible.”

Check out more stories from our Reaching Zero cover story:
Behind the Numbers: Data drives Vision Zero — but an obsession with statistics can leave the people it affects behind.
Homelessness Improvement: San Francisco has an ambitious goal of eradicating several categories of homelessness in an accelerated time-frame. Are we doing enough?

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