By 2020, San Francisco is expected to achieve its ambitious goal of zero waste to landfill. If we look back on the city’s evolution in waste management these past several years, we see that there have been leading efforts made by the government and its people in attempting to tackle its waste issues. While San Francisco has been a prominent example of recycling and trash sorting, the city is reconsidering the feasibility of its goals for the imminent deadline next year.
The California Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989 required each city and county in the state to divert half of its waste by 2000. San Francisco took it a further step in 2003 to promise to send no waste to landfill or high-temperature destruction facilities by 2020. In support of this move, the city also introduced its “Fantastic Three” program which divides trash bins into trash, recycling and composting, indicated by the colors black, blue and green respectively. In 2013, the national average for waste diversion was about 35 percent. San Francisco, however, achieved a much higher rate of 80 percent. Although the city is on its way to zero waste, the last mile proves to be more difficult than what is initially expected.
The city designs its programs to incentivize citizens to direct waste more into compost and/or recycling bins rather than trash/landfill bins. Fees for trash bin collections are around 10 times the price for compost and recycling bins. Also, if recyclable and compostable waste are not properly sorted into the correct bins, residents and businesses can also face additional fines. The city also realized that information and awareness is key to the success of the programs. Advice and feedback on how to better sort waste and performance are delivered to residents, forming part of the city’s comprehensive education program. San Francisco Department of Environment offers community programs, grants and school curriculums to teach people and students about waste management. While these programs are not specifically targeting waste reduction, they build a foundation for citizens in understanding waste management, which in the future will help residents and businesses realize how to gradually change their waste behaviors.
SF Environment has divided its “zero waste” policies into five different areas. Zero Waste policies outline the city’s specific commitments and goals. Recycling, Composting and Trash policies are more targeted towards the process of sorting and managing the trash types. Producer Responsibility addresses plastics such as polystyrene foam, plastic bag use and other single-use plastics. Construction and Demolition oversees building requirements and general debris regulations. The last type, City Government, focuses on waste prevention methods.
Which such a massive plan, how does San Francisco implement all its policies?
Everything is Better with a Partner
Recology, an employee-owned company, works with the government as the sole collector of waste. The rates are set by the city, which also provides oversight, research and outreach. Recology, on the other hand, offers infrastructure, collection and processing. Together, the two sides meet regularly in order to review performance and any impending issues. With only one company to work with, communication and administrative work is much more streamlined for the city, and provides the opportunity to establish long-term goals.
The Good and the Bad
Strong policy leadership, clear action plans, and legitimacy of the programs have led to San Francisco’s successes so far. With extensive support from the government, which also ensures legality, and regulations that have been clearly outlined, companies and people alike have a solid idea on what they are expected to do. And they actually want to be part of it. By including a large number of its stakeholders, the city can expect to receive continued support in implementing their strategies. The city also utilizes high-tech sorting and composting facilities. In addition, other strategies like certain plastic use bans, varying bin sizes and extra fees have been used to encourage behavioral changes in trash sorting and waste management.
For the remaining waste that San Francisco still has to tackle, part of it is not even possible to recycle, compost or reuse. Some, like certain electronics or furniture, contain toxic chemicals that can be dangerous to workers when inhaled, so therefore several recycling centers don’t accept these kinds of plastic. Otherwise, more effort put in by the public could boost the waste diversion percentage. More awareness and education on how to properly sort trash can allow much of the waste to be composted or recycled more effectively. There is also a need for more manufacturing of sustainable materials and products so that the process for recycling is easier.
Other cities in California are also implementing zero waste plans of their own. Los Angeles, Berkeley, Oakland, and San Diego have all committed to diverting waste but none as ambitious as San Francisco’s. In the US, we also see Colorado and Texas as well as other major cities in several states outline their own zero waste goals. In Europe, around 400 cities have joined the Zero Waste Masterplan under Zero Waste Europe, with city governments working together with various zero-waste related non-profits. While many are on the right track, no city has actually fully reached the goal of zero waste.
For now, San Francisco has adjusted its goals to look instead at 2030. By that year, the amount of waste generated per person should be reduced by 15 percent. The city acknowledges the level of ambition needed for it to achieve zero waste and seems to be embracing the possibility of not achieving it at all. However, the city will continue to spearhead efforts in reaching that elusive goal, encouraging its citizens to adapt their lifestyles as every step towards zero waste already means a lot to the future of the environment.