Raising the game

San Francisco has announced an 80 per cent landfill diversion rate. Jessica Lockey finds out how the city has reached this milestone, and what we can learn from the ‘greenest city’ in the US.

US flagIn 1989, California passed a law requiring municipalities to divert 50 per cent of waste from landfills by 2000. When San Francisco achieved this, it set itself a target of reaching 75 per cent landfill diversion by 2010, a figure it says it surpassed in 2008. Following this remarkable rise in landfill diversion, the city now has its sights on zero waste by 2020.

San Francisco’s diversion rate is calculated through a methodology developed by the state and takes into account: recyclables, including construction and demolition debris and scrap metal; compostables; reuse; sewage sludge; and biomass. Current figures put the diversion rate at 80 per cent, the highest in the US. San Francisco’s Department of Environment (DoE) Director Melanie Nutter has put this ‘record milestone’ down to “innovative policies, financial incentives, as well as outreach and education”.

The pivotal year for San Francisco was 1996, when commercial food waste collection began, followed by a pilot residential programme. The city settled on a ‘Fantastic Three’ system consisting of a blue bin for recyclables (paper, bottles, cans and most plastics); a green bin for compostables (plant material, food scraps, and soiled paper); and a black bin for the remaining waste. Carried out by waste contractor Recology, full-scale rollout was completed by 2004.

In 2006, the city initiated the Commercial Recycling Discount, giving businesses a discount of up to 75 per cent on their refuse bill if they recycle and compost, and in 2009, it passed a Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance, making it the first municipality in the US to mandate that residents separate all organic material.

Residents can be fined up to $1,000 (£638) if they fail to comply, but Guillermo Rodriguez, Director of San Francisco’s Policy & Communications, tells Resource that fines are a last resort: “The [DoE] prioritises education and outreach to encourage compliance… Face-to-face outreach has proven effective in helping residents and businesses become compliant. However, the city can impose fines to repeat offenders.” He adds that, to date, the department has not issued any fines.

And the threat of a fine seems to be working. The most recent official figure for waste going to landfill (2010) is 400,000 tonnes, compared to 1,593,830 tonnes diverted.

Rodriguez emphasises the city’s zero waste target as a solid grounding for its achievement. He notes several ways in which this target is incentivised: “Residents and businesses participate in the city’s programmes with tools like on-site multi-lingual training for businesses and residents, an online recycling database, and colour-coded signage.”


Image courtesy of Recology

As part of the ‘Environment Now’ job training programme, 15-20 local residents also conduct multi-lingual, door-to-door outreach, highlighting the benefits of preventing waste from going to landfill. And while these figures might look too good to be true, it’s hard to find anyone who questions them. That being said, the city’s contractor Recology is currently embroiled in a whistleblower lawsuit in which former employee Brian McVeigh has accused employees of regularly inflating the weights of recycled material in exchange for kickbacks. McVeigh, a former operations supervisor responsible for preventing fraud and theft, claims as much as $1.3 million (£832,000) per year was fraudulently extracted from state coffers through the scheme, a claim that raises doubts about the 80 per cent figure.

What’s more, industry publication Waste 360 has noted that if the city’s provisional 2012 residual figure of 440,000 tonnes is just 20 per cent of waste, then per capita waste generation is roughly three times the national average. Unlike the rest of the country, though, San Francisco’s rate includes construction and demolition waste and sewage sludge, as described above, but the rest of California no longer uses this method of calculation in part because ‘diversion rates were based on estimates of generation that often were inaccurate’.

This article was taken from Issue 72

Even in the article questioning San Francisco’s recycling rates, however, Waste 360 still noted the city’s ‘immense achievements’ and said San Franciscans ‘should be proud of their recovery programs’, and most critics agree. Richard Anthony from zero waste programmers Richard Anthony Associates, for instance, thinks the city can legitimately reach 90 per cent diversion, telling Resource it should target nappies: “Five per cent of the remaining 20 per cent of discards is from diapers [nappies] designed for landfill. A regional rule could be implemented that says these products must be compostable to be sold in the region.”

And Rodriguez says property managers can play a bigger role in heading towards zero waste: “Because more than half of the city lives in apartments, trash chutes pose a big challenge. Apartment dwellers must walk recyclables and compostables down to the basement or garage. However, new city ordinance requires new apartments to provide three separate chutes or a three-way chute diverter to accommodate recycling, composting, and landfill. The department encourages property managers to close chutes, but they are reluctant to do so for fear of ‘decreasing services’.”

Despite these issues, Rodriguez is confident that the city will reach zero waste by 2020, noting that half of what currently goes to landfill is recyclable. And as for the elusive 100 per cent zero waste target, he suggests the DoE “partner with producers to develop an extended producer responsibility system” and “encourage consumer responsibility, where residents reuse items and purchase materials with recycled content [that] can be recycled or composted”.

Whether or not San Francisco succeeds in its bold attempt, there are certainly lessons to take from its achievement to date.