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Zero waste in San Francisco is a 2020 vision

Adam Teitelbaum

“The goal is Zero Waste by 2020, and we think that is an achievable goal.”

Those words from former San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom back in 2009 promoted the idea of diverting all waste from landfills. It was actually an official resolution passed back in the Willie Brown Administration. Now in 2014, Mayor Ed Lee claims the city has reached 80% diversion. Whether or not that debatable claim is true, there’s a long way to go to reach the goal. So what’s it going to take to achieve zero waste by 2020?

Where we’re at

Every morning, in San Francisco’s neighborhoods, you can hear Recology’s big white trucks drive slowly down city streets, stopping at every house along the way.

They’re picking up the contents of residents’ blue, green, and black bins. The blue bins are for recycling, the green bins are for composting, and the black bins are for garbage. The city’s blue bin contents – 600 tons of paper, bottles, cans, and plastics – go every day to Recycle Central at Pier 96 where they get sorted by Recology personnel.

The green bins provide another 600 tons per day. Those compostables go to The Organics Annex across from Candlestick Park where yard waste and food scraps are sorted, then trucked to the city’s composting facilities.

The material in the black bins goes to the landfill. And as we approach the goal of zero waste by 2020, it’s the contents of those black bins that will have to shrink dramatically.

Shrinking the landfill load

Alexa Kielty, who is with the San Francisco Department of the Environment, says 4,500 pounds of textiles, including clothes and shoes, are thrown away in San Francisco every hour. But they’ve got a plan to deal with that: working with the international corporation I:CO to repurpose old wearables.

“Our goal is to collect clothing, shoes, and textiles to never hit our landfill and have endless use,” says Jennifer Gilbert, I:CO’s Chief Marketing Officer.

They do it by partnering with retailers around San Francisco.

Alicia Brown, manager at the American Eagle store in downtown San Francisco’s Westfield Mall, says, “Customers can come into our store and can recycle their old clothes instead of throwing them into their garbage.”

American Eagle gives a 15% discount to customers who drop off clothes for recycling.

“The recycle bin is located next to our cash register,” says Brown. “All you have to do is place your recycled clothes into the bin and let an associate know that you recycled your clothes so you can get your 15% off.”

When their collection bins are full, all items are gathered by I:CO, sorted, and graded in Fresno and L.A. The wearable items are then resold. The really beat­down rags are repurposed – as furniture padding and soundproofing materials.

“Our goal is closed loop,” says Gilbert. “Our goal is to spin that to create new clothing. That is the cradle-to-cradle philosophy, not cradle-to-grave.”

So fabric is one of the big fronts in San Francisco’s zero waste initiative. Another is food.

Reconsidering Compostables

“In San Francisco we are collecting 600 tons a day of food scraps and plants,” says Recology’s public relations manager Robert Reed. “That’s a tremendous amount.”

San Francisco generates compost from that waste – selling some to vineyards and giving some to residents. But about 10% of what we put in the green bins actually ends up in the landfill. Larger pieces of organic material that don’t fit through Recology’s processing screens are spread over the landfill as something known as ‘alternative daily cover’. While some environmental groups don’t think this should be considered diverted, it is, legally.

Some think there are better ways to use our excess food. In the US about 40% of our edible food is wasted, and Alexa Kielty of SF Environment says it’s the single largest category of unreclaimed waste in San Francisco.

“We need to educate people that we shouldn’t be sending edible foods to the landfill,” she says. “We need to be redistributing it to the many outlets we have in San Francisco. There are over 100 food pantries that could be receiving this stuff.”

One company that delivers that food, right now, is Food Runners. They have 250 volunteers in San Francisco who collect prepared foods, fruits, and vegetables from farmers markets, restaurants, caterers, and supermarkets. They deliver to shelters and soup kitchens as well as public schools and neighborhood rec centers. Director Mary Rizley says they can do more, and she wants the city to provide incentives.

“The Recology people now are currently giving credit for composting rather than garbaging,” she says. “So you get a credit off of your garbage bill. I think they should be giving credit for donating. Keeping food out of the compost and donating it to feed hungry people is way more better than turning it into dirt.”

San Francisco is still hoping to stop contributing to its landfills by 2020. As it gets closer to the deadline, however, the climb becomes steeper – and it will require more ‘outside-of-the-bin’ thinking to get there.

Crosscurrents San Francisco