A world without landfills? Hey, maybe it can happen.
Recology, a waste-management company based in San Francisco, is working with the city of San Francisco to help it become the country's first zero-waste city — in a scant seven years.
If they're successful, all of San Franciscans' discarded items will be recycled, reused or composted, and its need for landfills will become obsolete.
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As a result, what might look like a stinky pile of trash to the average person is quite another matter to a "garbage man" like Michael J. Sangiacomo, president and CEO of Recology, an employee owned and operated company that has held the solid waste-management contract with San Francisco for many years.
Sangiacomo sees profits: Soda cans can be crushed into huge blocks and sold to make more soda cans; used construction materials can be reworked and end up on new job sites; and last night's Chinese dinner can be composted and turned into a soil nutrient, which Recology markets to farmers to enhance crop growth in Napa and Sonoma vineyards and elsewhere.
"We live in a very environmentally concerned area in California. And... I think and act differently from people in my industry," Sangiacomo said. "In the waste industry, the big money has been made putting solid waste in landfills. To me, that's not waste management: It's just putting waste in a hole in the ground and hoping nothing goes wrong. If you can put waste back into commerce, that's much smarter."
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For a consulting fee, Recology also advises farmers on the optimal nutrient mix for their fields. Since 1996, Sangiacomo said, Recology has removed some 1.2 million tons of organic material from San Francisco that has been turned into a nutrient-rich product that goes back into the land.
Sangiacomo and his company have become beacons in the world of waste management. Officials from all over the globe regularly visit the company for tours and meet on how to tackle zero waste in their own cities and countries. So steady is the demand, said Sangiacomo, that a consulting arm to handle such inquiries may be in Recology's future.
Prominent zero-waste advocate Gary Liss applauds what Recology has achieved. "San Francisco is the leading city that's an early adopter of zero waste, and Recology has done amazing things as its partner," he said. That includes keeping 80 percent of its waste from the landfill and eliminating incineration altogether, another practice of waste management companies, he added.
Liss has more than three decades of experience in the field and has advised Los Angeles; Burbank, Calif.; Austin, Texas; Albuquerque, N.M.; Telluride, Colo.; and many others on zero-waste plans.
Recology's efforts in San Francisco succeed in part because California led the way. In 1989, when about 90 percent of the state's garbage ended up in landfills, the Integrated Waste Management Act set goals to reverse the pattern. The law mandated that by 1995 cities and counties divert 25 percent of waste from landfills and recycle, and, by 2002, 50 percent.
The state's initiative represented a sea change in dealing with the waste-management world, many of whose companies profit mightily by building elaborate landfills and dumping garbage into them. They also receive subsidies to build incinerators for burning trash. Landfills produce toxic runoff that can poison ground water, and fumes from incinerators can pollute the air.
Recognizing the wisdom of its state's guidance, San Francisco ran with the idea. Thirteen years ago, the city sent nearly 900,000 tons of material to the landfill, thereby keeping about 46 percent from going to the dump. By 2009, when the city implemented its Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance, the tonnage reaching the landfill dropped to 486,000 tons -- a 78 percent diversion. Now the rate of diversion is higher, Sangiacomo said
San Francisco's program also has progressed because its citizenry is on board. Recology provides the service and, with the city, implements a public education program. An added incentive for residents is that recycling is mandatory and violators are subject to fines.
To avoid such fees, the Recology staff routinely meets with residents to explain how the program works. Customers' bins are inspected to make sure discarded items are separated correctly. Non-compliant customers receive written warnings and sometimes a visit to refresh them on the basics.
Part of that education is a video on Recology's website that spells out the program with colorful graphics and a narrator's soothing voice. The narrator says customers use three different bins — blue for hard plastic, glass, cans, clean paper and cardboard; green for composting food scraps, plants, and paper products soiled by food; and black for items that end up in the landfill.
As spelled out on the video, Recology also offers disposal outlets for discarded batteries, hazardous chemicals, such as paint cans and cleaning solvents, and large items, such as furniture and appliances, through its micro-site recyclemyjunk.com.
However serious zero waste is to this city and Recology, the video's light touch shows up in its title: "Zero Waste Is Groovy."