Zero Waste FAQ

What is Zero Waste?

Zero waste means products are designed and used according to the waste reduction hierarchy (prevent waste, reduce and reuse first, then recycle and compost) and the principle of highest and best use, so no material goes to landfill or high-temperature destruction.

What prompted San Francisco to push for zero waste?

After San Francisco successfully achieved the state-mandated 50% landfill diversion by 2000, San Francisco wanted to extend its commitment to landfill diversion and set a goal of 75% diversion by 2010 and zero waste by 2020.  Increasing diversion and pursuing zero waste achieves three key sustainability goals:

1) Conserves valuable resources;
2) Reduces environmental impacts, such as climate change and pollution; and
3) Creates green jobs.

When materials are not reused or recycled and sent to the landfill, valuable resources are wasted and greenhouse gasses are emitted into the atmosphere.  Compostable materials, like food scraps and yard trimmings that are sent to landfills produce methane, a potent greenhouse gas which is up to 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide.  San Francisco’s Zero Waste program significantly reduces these emissions, making it an essential component in achieving the City’s ambitious greenhouse gas reduction goals.

In addition, recycling and composting greatly increase the amount of recyclable materials available to make new products, reducing the need to extract more virgin materials.  Food scraps create nutrient-rich compost – a natural fertilizer - to help grow fruits and vegetables in local farms. Compost also helps farms retain water, a precious resource.

San Francisco’s zero waste program benefits the economy, as composting and recycling save residents and businesses money and create green jobs (PDF).

What is the role of San Francisco City Departments in achieving zero waste? 

The San Francisco Department of the Environment and the San Francisco Department of Public Works partner with Recology, the city’s refuse hauler, to move towards the City’s zero waste goal.

The Department of the Environment creates zero waste policies and works with Recology to develop programs and technologies that reduce the amount of material sent to landfill. The Department of the Environment is responsible for program outreach, education, and policy compliance.  Residents and businesses participate in the City’s programs with tools like an online recycling database, and color-coded signage. In addition, on-site multi-lingual training is available for businesses and apartment buildings.

The Department of Public Works oversees the refuse rate setting process and helps set residential and commercial rates.  The Department of Public Works, along with the Department of Public Health, are also responsible for enforcing adequate refuse service laws.

Why is there no competitive bidding for Recology’s contract with the City?

The Refuse Collection and Disposal Ordinance adopted in 1932 established a system operated by collection companies that hold exclusive permits to collect refuse in the streets of San Francisco.  This ordinance created a City-regulated utility model and outlines a provision of service most recently ratified by San Francisco voters in June of 2012. At this time, Recology is the sole holder of all permits to collect refuse.

How does the City encourage recycling, composting and other waste reduction strategies to accomplish zero waste?

The City of San Francisco has adopted a variety of policies which have helped the city move toward accomplishing the goal of zero waste. Most important to the City’s success is the Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance, which went into effect on October 21, 2009. It requires San Francisco residents and businesses to properly sort recyclables from compostables and keep them out of the trash to landfill and place them in the proper collection containers. The Department of the Environment conducts extensive, multi-lingual and door-to-door outreach to residents and businesses about policies and programs with its green jobs team. This team also checks residential curbside bins throughout the city. If materials are found in the wrong bin, a tag is posted on the resident’s bin that indicates their error and how to correct it. The team returns the next week, looking to ensure that the error was corrected. The team also visits residents in the evening to answer questions about recycling and composting and thank them for their participation.

The Department of the Environment staff work with Recology, the city’s hauler, to ensure that businesses have composting and recycling bins. If they do not, the Department sends them a letter advising them to order composting and recycling service. The Department of the Environment then follows up in person to ensure compliance.

In addition, the Department of the Environment launched RecycleWhere, a recycling database for residents and businesses to find information on how to recycle almost anything in San Francisco. The Signmaker tool is another resource for residents and businesses to make their own recycle, compost, and landfill signs.

The Department of the Environment prioritizes education and outreach to encourage compliance, rather than impose fines. Face-to-face outreach has proven effective in helping residents and businesses become compliant with laws. However, the City can impose fines to repeat offenders.

The Department of the Environment, which works with businesses and residents all over San Francisco, has found that the community continues to be very positive and supportive of the City’s zero waste goals. San Francisco residents take great pride in their city and are passionate about taking care of it. This attitude has helped integrate sustainability into San Francisco’s culture. 

What is the “Fantastic Three” program?

The Fantastic Three program is a term sometimes used to refer to San Francisco’s easy-to-use three bin system. Each resident and business has a blue bin for recyclables, a green bin for compostables, and a black bin for landfill-bound material.

What are the biggest barriers the City faces with regards to zero waste?

Because more than half of the city lives in apartments, those with trash chutes pose a big challenge. Apartment dwellers must walk recyclables and compostables down to the basement or garage. However, City policy now requires new apartments to provide 3 separate chutes or a 3-way chute diverter to accommodate recycling, composting, and landfill material. The Department encourages property managers to close chutes, but they are often reluctant to do so for fear of  “decreasing services.”

Another challenge is encouraging residents and businesses to overcome fear that composting food scraps will attract insects or smell bad.  We explain that people can use compostable bags (certified compostable plastics, or paper) or another compostable container such as a milk carton to keep their bins clean.  Additionally, the Department reminds them that they were always generating that “smelly” food, and are simply now required to put it in a different bin.

What are some of the top items residents often put in the wrong bin?

1. Soiled paper used paper napkins or used tissue paper). Soiled paper is often thrown in the blue recycling bin because residents think all paper is recyclable.  Soiled paper should go in the green compost bin.
2. Plastic bags. Some people collect their recyclables or compostables in plastic bags and toss the whole bag in the green or blue bin.  Plastic bags are not compostable or recyclable in San Francisco’s three bin system.  Alternative containers for collecting food scraps include paper bags, empty wax milk cartons, or readily available compostable plastic bags.
3. To-go containers. Residents may leave large amounts of food in to-go/delivery containers (plastic clamshell containers or aluminum foil) and place these containers in the blue recycling bin or the green compost bin.  The correct way is to remove and compost any leftover food and then recycle or compost the container.
4. To-go coffee cups. Paper coffee cups are often found in the recycling bin.  The correct way is to put the coffee lid and sleeve into the blue recycling bin and the cup itself in the green compost bin.

For the most part, residents in San Francisco know the basics of sorting their trash and the Department of the Environment continues outreach efforts to spread awareness about which items go in each bin.

How much do San Francisco residents pay for refuse collection?

On July 30, 2013, San Francisco’s Refuse Rate Board finalized a rate increase for residential refuse-collection service. Starting August 1, 2013, a typical household in San Francisco with three 32-gallon bins (black trash, green composting and blue recycling) will see a monthly rate increase of $6.17, from $27.91 to $34.08.

On the other hand, if a household switches from a 32-gallon to a smaller 20-gallon black trash bin, their monthly rate will go down to $24.68. The decrease is an incentive for residents to recycle and compost more to support the City’s goal of achieving zero waste by 2020.

What are the costs associated with the city’s Zero Waste program?

San Francisco’s zero waste program is funded solely from revenue generated through refuse rates charged to customers. This revenue sustains material collection, processing, disposal, hazardous waste collections, all outreach and marketing materials, as well as some programs within the Department of the Environment and the Department of Public Works.

The cost of collecting compostables, recyclables, and landfill-bound materials is about the same. While maybe more expensive to process, recyclables are baled and sold to their respective markets and the compostables are processed and transformed into nutrient-rich compost, which is sold to local farms.  Landfill-bound materials are processed less but are charged by weight and dumped in the landfill with no return on investment.

Has the program been successful?

San Francisco has a world-class zero waste program. The City’s 3 bin system, policies, financial incentives, and extensive outreach to residents and businesses, helped San Francisco achieve the highest diversion rate of any major city in North America. San Francisco diverts 80% (1,593,830 tons diverted in 2010) of its discards from the landfill.

Do zero waste policies create jobs?

According to the Blue Green Alliance (PDF), 1.1 million new jobs would be created if the US diverted 75% from landfill
• Recology has 1,050 employees in San Francisco alone (this doesn’t count San Francisco corporate or operations outside of San Francisco like the composting facilities).
• The Department of the Environment has a green jobs program that employs local residents from the city’s diverse communities, who educate and inform residents and businesses about zero waste and Department of the Environment programs. 

Are there any best practices San Francisco uses for implementing its zero waste strategy?

• A convenient, easy-to-use three bin system
• Economic incentives for residents and businesses to recycle and compost
Policies that promote zero waste goals
• Extensive outreach and education to residents and businesses about recycling and composting

How is the landfill diversion rate calculated?

The Department of Environment calculates the city’s diversion rate using a State of California methodology established for all cities and counties. 

San Francisco's methodology for calculating diversion rate is based on the state of California’s diversion calculator.

What is the compost process at Recology’s composting facilities?

After compostables are collected, they are sent to a nearby compost facility, they are:

1. Screened for plastics, glass, and other non-compostable items
2. Ground to facilitate the micro-organisms in breaking down the material
3.  Processed into rows in a 2-stage system: first covered, then in open rows, and finally cured for the ideal final product.
4. The finished product is screened and marketed to local farmers.

Are any materials incinerated?

The City and County of San Francisco and the Department of the Environment do not support incineration of municipal solid waste or any form of high temperature materials destruction.

What is San Francisco's remaining landfill capacity?

As of March 2013, San Francisco's remaining landfill capacity at Altamont Landfill was about 1 million tons out of the original 15 million ton capacity. At current disposal rates, San Francisco's available landfill space under the existing contract will run out in January 2016.

Is zero waste possible?   

We believe achieving zero waste is possible. In San Francisco, over half of what still goes in the landfill bins can be recycled in the blue bin or composted in the green bin. When all material is sent to the correct bins, San Francisco’s diversion rate can increase from 80 percent to 90 percent.

To achieve 100 percent zero waste, The Department will need to continue to advocate for state legislation and partner with producers to develop an extended producer responsibility system, where producers design better products and take responsibility for the entire life-cycle of a product, including take-back and recycling.
In addition, The Department encourages consumer responsibility, where residents reuse items and purchase materials with recycled content and that can be recycled or composted.
The Department of the Environment continues conducting outreach and education to increase awareness about reducing, reusing, and recycling and composting.

Could other cities emulate San Francisco? Have they?

Department of the Environment staff often consult with other cities to share best practices. San Francisco was the first city in the nation to establish a large scale food collection composting program starting in the 1990s and in 2009 implemented a policy of mandatory recycling and composting (including food) for both residents and businesses. Hundreds of cities around the US, including most of the San Francisco Bay Area, are establishing food composting programs and many are interested in San Francisco’s mandatory policy as well. 
In addition, San Francisco was the first in the nation to ban single use plastic checkout bags in 2007.  Already, over 75 California cities and counties have followed San Francisco’s lead.

Does San Francisco count any landfilled material as diversion?

State law allows materials used as Alternative Daily Cover (ADC) at landfills to count as diversion. ADC is used as a protective cover of daily landfilled material and can offset the use of valuable soil as cover. San Francisco only counts ADC as diversion if there is no higher or better use for that material. If San Francisco did not count ADC for any diversion credit then it would reduce the city’s diversion rate by 1.5%.

Material used as ADC that is counted as diversion for San Francisco includes leftover compostable material that is too contaminated with non-compostable material to be used as compost. Food scraps break down completely in the process and therefore no food scraps end up as ADC. If there were no contaminants (non-compostables) put in green bins then there would not be any ADC from processing the green bin. The only other materials used as ADC that get diversion credit are fine particles from processing mixed construction and demolition debris that have no other viable use.

How much ADC material over the past few years does San Francisco send to the landfill that is counted as diverted/recycled?

About 30,000 tons per year is counted as diverted under California law.

 

Additional Resources

SF Environment website: Zero Waste
An Independent study of San Francisco’s waste discards (PDF)
Press Release: 3rd grader helps increase composting in the Bayview
News article: San Francisco's Trash Inspectors Get Up Earlier Than You Do
News article: The End of Trash