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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 principle of highest and best use, so no material goes to landfill or high-temperature destruction.
Are recycling and composting required in San Francisco?
San Francisco’s Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance requires everyone in San Francisco - businesses, residents, and City employees - to keep recyclables and compostables out of the landfill. Find more information regarding the Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance here.
Why are recycling and composting so important?
San Francisco’s composting program has given local farmers a viable and organic alternative to chemical fertilizers. The compost is used to grow food that comes back to San Francisco to support a healthy community. Additionally, composting prevents methane gas emissions – a potent greenhouse gas – from compostables breaking down in the landfill.
By recycling 1.2 million tons of paper in 10 years, San Francisco saved 20 million trees. By recycling 174,000 tons of glass, we saved enough energy to power San Francisco’s cable car system for nearly three years. By recycling 135,000 tons of metal, we saved together 19 million gallons of oil.
How much recyclable and compostable material does San Francisco divert from the landfill?
San Francisco diverts 80% (1,593,830 tons diverted in 2010) of its discards from the landfill. Along with curbside collection, other materials diverted from the landfill include sewage sludge, construction and demolition debris and scrap metal.
How is San Francisco's diversion rate calculated?
San Francisco's methodology for calculating diversion rate is based on the state of California’s diversion calculator. In short, San Francisco’s diversion rate can be calculated by dividing total diversion (recyclables and compostables) by the total generation of discards (recyclables, compostables, and landfill materials.
San Francisco's diversion rate is made up of the following materials:
Recyclables, including construction and demolition debris recyclables
What does San Francisco actually throw away?
An independent study of San Francisco's discards was conducted in 2006.
Are any materials incinerated?
The City and County of San Francisco and the Department of the Environment do not support incineration and does not send materials to be incinerated.
What is the compost process at Recology’s Jepson Prairie Organics composting facility?
When compostable materials are transported to Jepson Prairie Organics, compostables are:
- Screened for plastics, glass, and other non-compostable items
- Ground to facilitate the micro-organisms in breaking down the material
- Processed into rows in a 2-stage system: first covered, then in open rows, and finally cured for the ideal final product.
The finished product is screened and marketed to local farmers.
How cost-effective is a zero waste program that includes recycling and compost collection?
San Francisco’s zero waste program funded solely from revenue generated through refuse rates charged to customers. This revenue generated sustains material collection, processing, disposal, all outreach and marketing materials, as well as some programs within the Department of the Environment and the Department of Public Works. The residential rate for a 32-gallon landfill bin is $27.55 per month, which includes composting and recycling bins – all collected once per week.
While there are costs to process two extra streams, the cost to do so does not necessarily outweigh those associated with just collecting landfill-bound materials. Because the same collection trucks are driven along the same routes, the cost of collecting compostables, recyclables, and landfill-bound materials is about the same – the only difference at this stage is the type of material collected. The 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, whereas landfill-bound materials are charged by weight and dumped in the landfill.
Adopting a zero waste goal does not have negative economic impacts. Rather than acquiring new resources or setting up new infrastructure, collecting additional materials is more about reallocating existing resources (trucks, drivers, and routes) and directing them to currently-existing destinations.
Are there any cost incentives for the public to comply with the Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance?
There are cost incentives for public compliance. Recology, the City’s contracted hauler, offers discounts to commercial businesses with high diversion rates, which is determined by the level of recycling and composting service. In addition, San Francisco residents can reduce landfill service to a 20-gallon bin.
What are some problems with implementing a mandatory composting and recycling program in San Francisco?
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 3 separate chutes or a 3-way chute diverter to accommodate recycling, composting, and landfill. We encourage property managers to close chutes, but they are reluctant to do so for fear of “decreasing services”.
Another challenge is encouraging residents and businesses to overcome the "ick" factor with segregating compostable food scraps.
Can I put my used stuff out on the curb for someone to take for free?
Items cannot be left on the sidewalk or curb for someone to take for free. That is considered illegal dumping. More often than not, SF Department of Public Works ends up picking it up and taking it to the landfill at taxpayers’ expense.
Can broken or unusable items like old shoes, broken electronics, or torn clothing be recycled?
Some broken and unusable items can be recycled. Use RecycleWhere to find reuse and recycling options for everything from electronics to couches.
How do I report recycling theft?
It is illegal for a third party to take materials out of the recycling container provided by your refuse collector. Under the Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance, it also is illegal for someone to mix the contents among your containers after you have separated them. This adds an important new tool for the City to take action against organized theft of recyclables.
If you see someone taking material from your recycling container or mixing materials among containers, particularly if the material is being loaded into a vehicle, please report it on Recology's Recycle Theft Form.
You will not be fined if someone else tosses waste material into your container or mixes your separated materials together.
What is San Francisco's remaining landfill capacity?
As of March 2013, San Francisco's remaining landfill capacity at Altamont Landfill was 1,052,815 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.
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