“What goes around, comes around…”
On the top of the (compost ) food chain, in three short years after San Francisco launched the first large-scale urban food waste and composting program in the U.S., mandating the segregation of all organic materials city-wide, the city’s greenhouse emissions have dropped to nearly 12% below 1990 levels and the city leads the nation with a 78% waste-diversion rate. These successes have led those in waste diversion to renewed faith that a zero-waste city is possible and to conjecture that San Francisco will be that city. The City agrees and has set 2020 as its target for arriving at that destination to have no waste in San Francisco.
Who’s On Board?
San Francisco’s residents, long-habituated to composting over land-wasting, aren’t the only ones who have gotten in on the act. The EPA reports that 34% of the total trash generated in 2010 was recycled, a great step up from the mere 10% recycled in 1980. However, these gains are sadly counteracted by the increase in solid waste from 3.66 to 4.43 lbs/person/day in that same period of time.
What’s at Stake?
Landfill waste contributes an enormous amount of methane emissions to our atmosphere, and the effects, such as dramatic climate change, of those emissions are being experienced right now. Voluntary recycling has not been shown to result in sufficient waste diversion, prompting cities across the country to look at organic materials, which are the largest contributor to municipal solid waste. At present, under 3% of potential food scraps are composted.
Getting to Zero
Moving toward zero-waste will be a multi-faceted undertaking, requiring a comprehensive, long-term plan of collective and concerted action among all stakeholders. Sustaining a zero-waste initiative requires an adequate infrastructure, buy-in (businesses, individuals, communities, municipalities), continuous education, and facilities that can support a new business model where waste diversion overshadows landfill. For example, without the infrastructure and facilities to properly recycle difficult-to-recycle objects that people tend to opt to send to landfill (i.e., eWaste, old/undesirable furniture, etc.), without mandating that citizens and businesses recycle, and without a willingness to eliminate the unrecyclable (e.g., plastic bags) or create recycling alternatives for them, efforts to realize the goal of zero waste will be hampered.
How the City by the Bay Did It: a Brief Review
1989 the State of California mandates 50% waste diversion for all municipalities by 2000.
At this time, 90% of California’s waste was dumped each year.
San Francisco was diverting 25%/year due (in large part) to volunteer-run community recycling centers, its three buy-back centers, and a robust curbside recycling program.
In San Francisco, food residuals contributed over 25% of landfill, which prompted the city to become even more aggressive about recycling and ratchet up its composting agenda.
By 1999 San Francisco’s waste collector introduced a program that gave financial incentives for voluntarily reducing trash volume.
The net result was that within a few months the diversion rate among participating residents and businesses increased by over 90%.
The example that San Francisco has set could not have been achieved by its previous waste management infrastructure, which explains the rise of companies that provide waste diversion services, which augment those the city’s waste manager handles. These companies fill a crucial gap that will surely increase over the next six years if the city is to achieve its goal and become the model for the rest of the country.