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The average American produces about 4.4 pounds of waste per day. Roughly 1.5 pounds of that is composted or recycled, meaning the U.S. avoids sending just 34 percent of its waste to landfills, according to the EPA.
San Francisco provides a much different narrative. Thanks to bold public policy and educational initiatives, the city diverts about 80 percent of its waste from landfills, or more than 1.5 million tons every year.
Ultimately, San Francisco aims to reach zero waste. That means recycling, composting, reusing, and reducing consumption so that nothing goes to either the landfill or incineration.
The city hopes to achieve this goal by 2020. But even if it doesn’t, San Francisco is already way ahead of other cities. For example, New York only diverts about 21 percent of its waste and Chicago is at about 10 percent.
In 2009, San Francisco made recycling and composting a requirement for all businesses and residences. It passed the nation’s first mandatory composting law, and while a few progressive cities have followed suite, most haven't.
San Francisco also banned environmentally hazardous items like checkout bags and Styrofoam. Debbie Raphael, director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, said she's proud of how the city has used market incentives to drive behavior.
“If we can't ban the materials sometimes we'll put a charge on it," she said. "We might ban a plastic bag and put a charge on using a single-use paper bag, because we're sending signals to the producers and to the users, to the consumers, that there's an easy, convenient, right way to do things.”
To encourage behavior change, San Francisco initially set trash collection rates much higher than recycling and composting rates. While rates are more comparable now, residential bin sizes provide a behavioral nudge. Standard residential services include a 64-gallon blue recycling bin, a 32-gallon green composting bin, and 16-gallon black trash bin.
Businesses are also charged according to the volume of waste they present. They receive discounts for using the green and blue bins, and are penalized if recyclables or compostables end up in the trash.
Another key to San Francisco’s success is its exclusive partnership with waste management company Recology. Raphael said that working with one company eases the administrative burden and makes it possible to collaborate on long-term goals.
New York, by comparison, has a private system for commercial waste, comprised of hundreds of competing waste collection companies. This makes it challenging for the local government to collaborate on citywide initiatives.
The final element that sets San Francisco’s apart is the sheer scale of its recycling and composting operations.
All of the city's recyclables are brought to Recycle Center, a 200,000 square foot warehouse on Pier 96 that processes 40 to 45 tons of materials per hour.
A team of 14 people work alongside high-tech screens, magnets and optical sorters to weed out contamination and separate the paper, metals and plastics. Similar materials are placed in a bale together, and shipped out to recycling plants both domestically and abroad.
As for the compost, all of the city’s yard waste and food scraps are brought to Jepson Prairie Organics in Vacaville, about 60 miles northeast of San Francisco. Here, compostables are weighed, ground up and blended. Eventually, the nutrient-rich product is sold as fertilizer to vineyards in wine country and nut growers in the Central Valley.
Greg Pryor, general manager of Jepson Prairie, said this was one of the first facilities in the U.S. to compost food scraps.
“When we started in ‘94-’95 with food, there wasn't anybody doing it on a commercial scale that we were processing, and a lot of naysayers in the beginning," he said. "Today they can't argue with our success. It can be done.”
Both Recycle Central and Jepson Prairie host national and international visitors, who are eager to learn how they can replicate San Francisco’s success.
While San Francisco’s waste management system costs about $300 million annually, the program is funded solely through waste collection fees, which are no higher than average for the Bay Area.
Furthermore, a complex recycling and composting operation can be an engine for job growth. Raphael said that for each ton of material, 20 more jobs are created when you recycle than if you put that material in a landfill.
San Francisco still has work to do. About half a million tons of material end up in the city’s landfill every year.
Tackling this involves more awareness and education. Raphael said that 60 percent of what ends up in San Francisco’s trash bins could be composted or recycled. The remaining 40 percent is out of their control.
“We need manufacturers to step up," Raphael said. "We need products to be designed differently so that they're using materials that can be handled in our blue and our green streams and our recycling and our composting."