San Francisco Department of the Environment

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Zero Waste - Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is zero waste?
Is zero waste possible?
What are some of the top items residents often put in the wrong bin?
What are the biggest barriers the City faces with regards to zero waste?

What prompted San Francisco to push for zero waste?
What is the role of San Francisco City Departments in achieving zero waste?
How does the City encourage recycling, composting and other waste reduction strategies to accomplish zero waste?
What is the “Fantastic Three” program?

How much do San Francisco residents pay for refuse collection?
What are the costs associated with the city’s Zero Waste program?
Has the program been successful?
Do zero waste policies create jobs?

Are there any best practices San Francisco uses for implementing its zero waste strategy?
Why is there no competitive bidding for Recology's contract with the City?
What is the compost process at Recology’s composting facilities?

Could other cities emulate San Francisco? Have they?
 

Related content


What is Zero Waste?

Zero waste means products are designed and used according to the waste reduction hierarchy (prevent waste, reduce and reuse first, then recycle and compost) and the principle of highest and best use, so no material goes to landfill or high-temperature destruction.

Is zero waste possible?

We believe achieving zero waste is possible. To strive for zero waste, the San Francisco Department of the Environment will continue to advocate for state legislation and partner with producers to develop an extended producer responsibility system, where producers design better products and take responsibility for the entire life-cycle of a product, including take-back and recycling.

In addition, the San Francisco Department of the Environment encourages consumer responsibility, where residents reuse items and purchase materials with recycled content and that can be recycled or composted. The Department of the Environment continues conducting outreach and education to increase awareness about reducing, reusing, and recycling and composting.

What are some of the top items residents often put in the wrong bin?

1. Soiled paper (used paper napkins or used tissue paper). Soiled paper is often thrown in the blue recycling bin because residents think all paper is recyclable.  Soiled paper should go in the green compost bin.
2. Plastic bags. Some people collect their compostables in plastic bags and toss the whole bag in the blue bin.  Plastic bags are not compostable in San Francisco’s green bin. Compostable containers for collecting food scraps include paper bags or readily available compostable plastic bags. You can recycle plastic bags by collecting all clean soft plastic into one bag and putting the bundle in the blue recycling bin.
3. To-go containers. Residents may leave large amounts of food in to-go/delivery containers (plastic clamshell containers or aluminum foil) and place these containers in the blue recycling bin or the green compost bin.  The correct way is to remove and compost any leftover food and then recycle or compost the container.
 

For the most part, residents in San Francisco know the basics of sorting their trash and the Department of the Environment continues outreach efforts to spread awareness about which items go in each bin.

What are the biggest barriers the City faces with regards to zero waste?

Trash chutes: Because more than half of the city lives in apartments, those with trash chutes pose a big challenge. Apartment dwellers must walk recyclables and compostables down to the basement or garage. However, City policy now requires new apartments to provide 3 separate chutes or a 3-way chute diverter to accommodate recycling, composting, and landfill material. The Department encourages property managers to close chutes, but they are often reluctant to do so for fear of  “decreasing services.”

Fear of smells or insects: Another challenge is encouraging residents and businesses to overcome fear that composting food scraps will attract insects or smell bad. People can use compostable bags (certified compostable plastics, or paper) or another compostable container such as a milk carton to keep bins clean. That “smelly” food is the same refuse as before, just grouped in its own bin.

What prompted San Francisco to push for zero waste?

After San Francisco successfully achieved the state-mandated 50% landfill diversion by 2000, San Francisco wanted to extend its commitment to landfill diversion and set a goal of 75% diversion by 2010 and zero waste by 2020.  Increasing diversion and pursuing zero waste achieves three key sustainability goals:

1) Conserves valuable resources
2) Reduces environmental impacts, such as climate change and pollution
3) Creates green jobs

When materials are not reused or recycled and sent to the landfill, valuable resources are wasted and greenhouse gasses are emitted into the atmosphere.  Compostable materials, like food scraps and yard trimmings that are sent to landfills produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas which is up to 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide.  San Francisco’s Zero Waste program significantly reduces these emissions, making it an essential component in achieving the City’s ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals.

In addition, recycling and composting greatly increase the amount of recyclable materials available to make new products, reducing the need to extract more virgin materials.  Food scraps create nutrient-rich compost – a natural fertilizer - to help grow fruits and vegetables in local farms. Compost also helps farms retain water, a precious resource.

San Francisco’s zero waste program benefits the economy, as composting and recycling save residents and businesses money and create green jobs (PDF).

What is the role of San Francisco City Departments in achieving zero waste?

The San Francisco Department of the Environment and the San Francisco Department of Public Works partner with Recology, the city’s refuse hauler, to move towards the City’s zero waste goal.

The Department of the Environment creates zero waste policies and works with Recology to develop programs and technologies that reduce the amount of material sent to landfill. The Department of the Environment is responsible for program outreach, education, and policy compliance.  Residents and businesses participate in the City’s programs with tools like an online recycling database, and color-coded signage. In addition, on-site multi-lingual training is available for businesses and apartment buildings.

The Department of Public Works oversees the refuse rate setting process and helps set residential and commercial rates.  The Department of Public Works, along with the Department of Public Health, are also responsible for enforcing adequate refuse service laws.

How does the City encourage recycling, composting and other waste reduction strategies to accomplish zero waste?

The City of San Francisco has adopted a variety of policies which have helped the city move toward accomplishing the goal of zero waste. Most important to the City’s success is the Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance, which went into effect on October 21, 2009. It requires San Francisco residents and businesses to properly sort recyclables from compostables and keep them out of the trash to landfill and place them in the proper collection containers. The Department of the Environment's Environment Now team conducts extensive, multilingual and door-to-door outreach to residents and businesses and also checks residential curbside bins throughout the city. If materials are found in the incorrect bin, a tag is posted on the resident’s bin that indicates the correct bin. The team returns the following week to ensure that the error was corrected. The team also visits residents to answer questions about recycling and composting.

The Department of the Environment staff work with Recology, the city’s hauler, to ensure that businesses have composting and recycling bins. If they do not, the Department sends them a letter advising them to order composting and recycling service. The Department of the Environment then follows up in person to ensure compliance.

In addition, the Department of the Environment launched RecycleWhere, a recycling database for residents and businesses to find information on how to recycle almost anything in San Francisco. The Signmaker tool is another resource for residents and businesses to make their own recycle, compost, and landfill signs. SFRecycles was created to help residents and bussinesses with what goes where.

The Department of the Environment prioritizes education and outreach to encourage compliance, rather than impose fines. Face-to-face outreach has proven effective in helping residents and businesses become compliant with laws. However, the City can impose fines to repeat offenders.

The Department of the Environment, which works with businesses and residents all over San Francisco, has found that the community continues to be very positive and supportive of the City’s zero waste goals. San Francisco residents take great pride in their city and are passionate about taking care of it. This attitude has helped integrate sustainability into San Francisco’s culture. 

What is the “Fantastic Three” program?

The Fantastic Three program is a term sometimes used to refer to San Francisco’s easy-to-use three bin system. Each resident and business has three bins:

  • Blue bin for recyclables
  • Green bin for compostables
  • Black bin for landfill-bound material

What are the costs associated with the city’s Zero Waste program?

San Francisco’s zero waste program is funded solely from revenue generated through refuse rates charged to customers. This revenue sustains material collection, processing, disposal, hazardous waste collections, all outreach and marketing materials, as well as some programs within the Department of the Environment and the Department of Public Works.

The cost of collecting compostables, recyclables, and landfill-bound materials is about the same. While maybe more expensive to process, recyclables are baled and sold to their respective markets and the compostables are processed and transformed into nutrient-rich compost, which is sold to local farms.  Landfill-bound materials are processed less but are charged by weight and dumped in the landfill with no return on investment.

Has the program been successful?

San Francisco has a world-class zero waste program. The City’s 3 bin system, policies, financial incentives, and extensive outreach to residents and businesses, helped San Francisco achieve the highest recovery rate of any major city in North America.

Do zero waste policies create jobs?

• According to the Blue Green Alliance, 1.1 million new jobs would be created if the US diverted 75% from landfill (PDF).
• Recology has 1,050 employees in San Francisco alone (this doesn’t count San Francisco corporate or operations outside of San Francisco like the composting facilities).
• The Department of the Environment has a green jobs and environmental careers program that employs local residents from the city’s diverse communities, who educate and inform residents and businesses about zero waste and Department of the Environment programs. 

Are there any best practices San Francisco uses for implementing its zero waste strategy?

• A convenient, easy-to-use three bin system
• Economic incentives for residents and businesses to recycle and compost
Policies that promote zero waste goals
• Extensive outreach and education to residents and businesses about recycling and composting

Why is there no competitive bidding for Recology’s contract with the City?

The Refuse Collection and Disposal Ordinance adopted in 1932 established a system operated by collection companies that hold exclusive permits to collect refuse in the streets of San Francisco.  This ordinance created a City-regulated utility model and outlines a provision of service most recently ratified by San Francisco voters in June of 2012. At this time, Recology is the sole holder of all permits to collect refuse.

What is the compost process at Recology’s composting facilities?

After compostables are collected, they are sent to a nearby compost facility, they are:

1. Screened for plastics, glass, and other non-compostable items
2. Ground to facilitate the micro-organisms in breaking down the material
3.  Processed into rows in a 2-stage system: first covered, then in open rows, and finally cured for the ideal final product.
4. The finished product is screened and marketed to local farmers.

Could other cities emulate San Francisco? Have they?

Department of the Environment staff often consult with other cities to share best practices. San Francisco was the first city in the nation to establish a large scale food collection composting program starting in the 1990s and in 2009 implemented a policy of mandatory recycling and composting (including food) for both residents and businesses. Hundreds of cities around the US, including most of the San Francisco Bay Area, are establishing food composting programs and many are interested in San Francisco’s mandatory policy as well. 
In addition, San Francisco was the first in the nation to ban single use plastic checkout bags in 2007.  Already, over 75 California cities and counties have followed San Francisco’s lead.


Related Content

SF Environment website: Zero Waste
Press Release: 3rd grader helps increase composting in the Bayview
An Independent study of San Francisco’s waste discards (PDF)
 

Additional Resources

News: San Francisco's Trash Inspectors Get Up Earlier Than You Do (The Atlantic)
News: The End of Trash (San Francisco Magazine)
Case Study: Zero Waste Program of San Francisco (Governments Going Circular)

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