Where No City Has Gone Before: San Francisco Will Be World's First Zero-Waste Town by 2020

Sven Eberlein

Where No City Has Gone Before: San Francisco Will Be World's First Zero-Waste Town by 2020

A future without landfills? SF is already 78% of the way there -- but the hardest part is still ahead.

A sculpture made of garbage salvaged from San Francisco's dump
Photo Credit: Sven Eberlein

Last month,  the millionth ton of food scraps, coffee grounds and soiled paper from San Francisco’s mandatory composting program returned to residents’ dinner tables in the form of fresh, organic foods grown by local farmers using the city’s nutrient-rich compost as fertilizer. Coming on the heels of the city’s  2009 municipal ordinance requiring city-wide source separation of all organic materials, the first large-scale urban food waste and composting program in the country has not only helped reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions to nearly 12 percent below 1990 levels; it's also catapulted San Francisco to a staggering, nation-leading 78 percent waste diversion rate.

Just a few years ago, a  zero-waste city was considered a futuristic scenario. Now, the city by the bay is on track to be the first and only North American city to achieve this impressive goal -- and it plans to get there by 2020.

For San Franciscans like myself, life without the “ Fantastic Three” -- the simple, color-coded cart system consisting of a green composting, blue recycling and black, often smaller trash cart -- has become unthinkable. Putting banana peels and used tissues into an empty quart of ice-cream is part of our routine. Trips to cities without composting bins feel like visits to strange planets in distant galaxies. The fact that we could so quickly get used to skittle-sized garbage bags while our compost bags are bulging with leftovers speaks not only to a well-conceived program and the adaptability of San Francisco residents, but to the potential of reaching similar milestones anywhere else in the U.S or abroad.
Cities across America have been trying to figure out how to keep their landfills from overflowing since the 1980s. According to  EPA figures, 34 percent -- or 85 million tons out of a total 250 million tons of trash generated in the U.S. in 2010 -- was recycled, up from only 10 percent in 1980. However, while curbside recycling and yard waste composting programs are now ubiquitous in many cities, and have accounted for much of this uptick, per capita solid waste generation in the U.S. has actually increased from 3.66 to 4.43 pounds per person per day in the same time span. In other words, whatever dent Americans are making into their garbage through recycling is still offset by increased consumption and disposal.  
From huge  methane emissions due to decomposition of landfill waste to the growing  garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean, cities everywhere are waking up to the fact that our throw-it-away culture can no longer be remediated with voluntary bottle, can and newspaper recycling alone. This low-hanging fruit has already been picked. Now, some cities are moving on to the bigger challenge: the organic materials that constitute the largest component of municipal solid waste. With less than 3 percent of food scraps currently being composted nationwide, and many non-recyclable materials like plastic bags on the rise, cities with even the most comprehensive glass, aluminum and paper recycling programs are hard-pressed to keep more than half of their total waste out of their landfills. 
Breaking the 50 percent “glass” ceiling and moving toward zero-waste is a multi-faceted undertaking. It requires a comprehensive, long-term plan that involves all stakeholders, and includes several important steps.
First, you need the infrastructure and facilities to divert and repurpose the hundreds of materials discarded daily by modern society, from electronic gadgets to old mattresses to soiled paper napkins. Second, participation has to be city-wide and mandatory -- including residential, government, business and industrial sectors. Third, some sacred cows of convenience, like the above-mentioned plastic bags, have to be  banned, or at least reflect their true cost. Most importantly, along with potential fines for non-compliance, there has to be a broad outreach program to educate all residents on why zero waste is beneficial to the community and the planet, and how each of us can contribute to the goal.
San Francisco’s story shows that with the right amount of political will, economic planning and civic engagement, it's possible to lay the foundation for a physical and mental environment in which the word “waste” as we know it does not need to exist.
A brief history of garbage
To fully understand how far we have come, let's go back. In 1989, when the State of California  passed AB 939, requiring all municipalities to divert at least 50 percent of waste from landfills by 2000, America was still fully entrenched in the throw-away culture of the post-war years. During these dark garbage ages, 90 percent of California’s 40 million tons of waste generated each year was dumped into bursting landfills across the state. 
San Francisco was already slightly further along for the time. It diverted about 25 percent of its waste, thanks to a number of volunteer-run community recycling centers dating back to the first Earth Day, as well as three buy-back centers and a curbside recycling program. However, in a city where food residuals alone -- most of it from the city's many restaurants -- make up over a quarter of what’s hauled to the landfill, it soon became clear that the only way it could reach the 50-percent diversion goal set by the state was to not only become more aggressive about recycling, but get busy composting.
In 1999, San Francisco’s waste collector  Recology introduced the “Fantastic Three,” giving huge financial incentives to those who would voluntarily reduce their trash volume. Within months, the diversion rate for participating businesses and residents increased by more than 90 percent.
The blue carts
These successful trial runs and the following full-scale rollout of the three-stream collection system proved that zero-waste was possible. In 2002, the board of supervisors passed a bold resolution of 75 percent landfill diversion by 2010 (which it reached in 2008) and zero waste by 2020. That same year  Recycle Central, a former 185,000-square-foot warehouse on Pier 96, was converted into one of the largest state-of-the-art recycling facilities in the U.S. Run by more than 180 employee-owners hired from the predominantly low-income Bayview/Hunters Point neighborhood, the facility was the result of a conscious decision by the city and Recology to recover resources at a central plant, rather than relying on individual residents to figure out what goes where. 
As a result, San Franciscans are now able to toss everything from cereal boxes and egg cartons to spray cans and laundry detergent bottles into their  blue carts. Picked up by a fleet of trucks running on biodiesel and natural gas, the recyclables end up on a series of conveyer belts and are separated by spinning disks, magnets, and by hand. The approximately 750 tons of daily reclaimed “waste” fills 30 large containers six days a week and gets shipped to all kinds of manufacturing facilities that re-manufacture the high-quality materials. Think of the beginning scenes of  Wall-E, then imagine a couple hundred friends helping Wall-E circulate the mountains of scraps back into good use, and you’ve got the essence of Recycle Central. 
The green carts
Tossing your recyclables in a bin is one thing. Saving your sloppy seconds is another. Sure, you have your early adopters -- your urban gardeners and other green-thumb types -- but how do you get the bulk of your citizenry that was raised on garbage disposals and anti-bacterial soap to hang on to their avocado pits and sandwich wrappers? Composting, it seems, is as much a state of mind as it is a physical activity. It's like eating something you’ve never had before; there’s a mental block that’s hard to overcome without a little help. And yet, once we’ve taken that first bite, we quickly forget how much we used to not like what we didn’t know.
The city knew that if it wanted to have a large-scale, city-wide composting program to make an actual dent in the overall waste stream, it would have to be mandatory. Its pilot program had shown that not only food scraps but yard trimmings, coffee cups, greasy pizza boxes and even milk and juice cartons could be broken down at  Jepson Prairie Organics, a compost facility about 55 miles east of San Francisco in Vacaville. From there, the nutrient-rich organic fertilizer -- perfect for reconditioning soil due to its diverse feedstock -- could be distributed to surrounding farms, which in turn sell their produce to SF residents and restaurants, thus closing the loop locally. 
After the board of supervisors passed the  Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance in 2009, people quickly adapted to the new  green carts. According to the  San Francisco Department of the Environment, hundreds of thousands of residents and over 5,000 restaurants and other businesses now send over 600 tons of food scraps and other compostable material each day to Jepson Prairie. 
Engaging the community
Perhaps the most important element in San Francisco’s waste reduction success so far has been education. The reason the city still sends 36 percent of compostable materials to landfill is not so much because of willful non-compliance, but for lack of information. In a city where English is not the first language for many residents, one way the Department of the Environment reaches out is by sending staff into multicultural neighborhoods to talk directly with customers, often using pictograms and multilingual signage about what goes where. 
In the recycling department, Recology’s one-of-a-kind  Artist-In-Residence Program shows how creativity and inspiration can help people envision a world where every "thing" has inherent and lasting value. A trip to San Francisco’s transfer station (aka the dump) offers visitors the unique experience of marveling at sculptures made from discarded materials. Made by local professional artists who have full scavenging privileges during a four-month residency, the motley creations made from old tires, plastic bottles and everything else are living proof that the whole idea of “garbage” is nothing more than our collective lack of imagination.
When it comes to selling the public on composting, there's nothing like shaking the hand that feeds you. Over the past few years, countless farmers' markets and urban gardens have shot up in every corner of the city, reconnecting San Franciscans with the food they eat and the people who grow it. The bustling Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market offers its customers not only fresh and organic food, but increased awareness and familiarity with all aspects of the local food chain.  CUESA, the nonprofit Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture, runs three weekly markets and many educational events, ranging from making your own yogurt and learning about seasonal cooking to demonstrations for tourists on how to use the Fantastic Three.
Countdown to zero-waste  
Getting to 78 percent waste diversion was the easy part, but the next 22 percent will be the most challenging. As San Francisco has proven, the right incentives, technology, habits and laws go a long way toward eliminating the most obvious and retrievable chunks from your waste stream. The first half of the full distance can be covered relatively painlessly, and quite a few cities across the United States have now reached that important threshold.
But once a city gets past 50 percent it gets interesting, as residents and businesses learn to embrace their rotting food scraps. Getting to three quarters requires letting go of some holy cows, be they  plastic or styrofoam. And the closer you get to no waste at all, the deeper you wade into territories that are no longer about stuff, but about culture and consciousness and understanding your place in the cycle. 
Zero-waste is just another term for a collective understanding, manifest in daily acts, that on a finite planet there is no “away” to throw things. San Francisco is on its final steep ascent toward some uncharted physical and cultural territory -- a journey more and more of us will be following in the decade or two to come.