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Approaching Zero Waste: San Francisco's Recycling Efforts

Posted by Ruthie on 3/17/2014 to Composting

SF Recycling and Composting Ordinance on Dipity.

It stands to reason that one of the most beautiful and iconic cities on planet Earth would take seriously its view of garbage. Beautification programs in San Francisco can be traced back to the 1960's, with arguably less defined approaches reaching further back than that. Efforts appear to be paying off; San Francisco diverts an astounding 80 percent of its waste from landfills, compared to the national average of 34 percent. So how exactly did the city become a leader in the march toward zero waste? While its colorful history and progressive politics certainly are key elements, the city's current stewardship, coupled with its long history of managing waste, help to answer the question.

Where there is a will there is a way, but an administration that wants to achieve goals needs a visionary approach. Enter Jack Macy, Zero Waste Coordinator for San Francisco. “We have policies to push us all the way toward a future of sending zero waste to landfill,” he says.

Since 1932, San Francisco has had a relationship with only one hauler, allowing the city to play a strong role in the regulation of removal services. That company ultimately became Recology, which serves San Francisco as well as many other communities in California and The West. Its president, Mike Sangiacomo, helped to bring forth the company’s vision of a recycling and composting services.

Though the city got out ahead of other large municipalities, by the mid 60’s only metal and paper recycling programs were still in place. This diminished capacity was attributed to the use of Packer Trucks. But this trend would not last. However, 1970 saw the first Earth Day, and a movement was rekindled. Citizens filled in where industry and government trailed off, starting their own community recycling centers. By 1980, ten of these centers dotted the city. With the newly established California Redemption Value ( California's Bottle Bill - AB2020), within 6 years, all community recycling centers now offered monetary compensation for items with the CRV label. By the end of the decade the modern recycling culture was underway.

In 1989, the implementation of California’s Integrated Waste Management Act (AB 939) and San Francisco’s burgeoning curbside programs set real obtainable goals for waste reduction. By 1997, the city had diverted an additional 15,000 tons of recyclables. Ten years later, Recology and the city would roll out their “Fantastic 3” initiative, a color-coded cart system that included curbside composting. The Zero Waste Goal (Resolution No. 007-02-COE) was passed in 2002, requiring San Francisco to divert 75 percent of its waste by 2010, and to achieve zero waste by 2020. Of particular note, Mr. Macy has created a city-wide composting program that is a true trendsetter being emulated by neighboring towns around the Bay. He says “This is not just yard trimmings and plant debris, which is common in California, but all food scraps and other food-soiled paper products that would not otherwise be recyclable.” As far as the big picture is concerned “If you look at what we accept as recyclable and compostable, it adds up to 90 percent of everything that’s being discarded. If everybody recycled or composted what they could, we’d be at 90 percent.”

With an aggressive, and highly successful, public education campaign, The City adopted the Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance in 2009 (No. 100-09). Though the law invokes fines for not recycling and composting, the message is clear that participating in the program saves money in lower trash removal costs on both the residential and commercial sides. Herein, of course, lies the potential for recycling and composting efforts for towns across America — if money can be saved in the process, it becomes a worthy proposition for all.