Where No City Has Gone Before

Where No City Has Gone Before: San Francisco Will Be World's First Zero-Waste Town by 2020
A future without landfills? SF is already 78% of the way there -- but the hardest part is still ahead.

April 18, 2012  |  By Sven Eberlein

Last month, the millionth ton of food scraps, coffee grounds and soiled paper from San Francisco’s mandatory composting program returned to residents' dinner tables in the form of fresh, organic foods grown by local farmers using the city's nutrient-rich compost as fertilizer. Coming on the heels of the city's 2009 municipal ordinance requiring city-wide source separation of all organic materials, the first large-scale urban food waste and composting program in the country has not only helped reduce the city's greenhouse gas emissions to nearly 12 percent below 1990 levels; it's also catapulted San Francisco to a staggering, nation-leading 78 percent waste diversion rate.

A sculpture made of garbage salvaged from San Francisco's dump
Photo Credit: Sven Eberlein

Just a few years ago, a zero-waste city was considered a futuristic scenario. Now, the city by the bay is on track to be the first and only North American city to achieve this impressive goal -- and it plans to get there by 2020.

For San Franciscans like myself, life without the "Fantastic Three" -- the simple, color-coded cart system consisting of a green composting, blue recycling and black, often smaller trash cart -- has become unthinkable. Putting banana peels and used tissues into an empty quart of ice-cream is part of our routine. Trips to cities without composting bins feel like visits to strange planets in distant galaxies. The fact that we could so quickly get used to skittle-sized garbage bags while our compost bags are bulging with leftovers speaks not only to a well-conceived program and the adaptability of San Francisco residents, but to the potential of reaching similar milestones anywhere else in the U.S or abroad.

Cities across America have been trying to figure out how to keep their landfills from overflowing since the 1980s. According to EPA figures, 34 percent -- or 85 million tons out of a total 250 million tons of trash generated in the U.S. in 2010 -- was recycled, up from only 10 percent in 1980. However, while curbside recycling and yard waste composting programs are now ubiquitous in many cities, and have accounted for much of this uptick, per capita solid waste generation in the U.S. has actually increased from 3.66 to 4.43 pounds per person per day in the same time span. In other words, whatever dent Americans are making into their garbage through recycling is still offset by increased consumption and disposal.  

From huge methane emissions due to decomposition of landfill waste to the growing garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean, cities everywhere are waking up to the fact that our throw-it-away culture can no longer be remediated with voluntary bottle, can and newspaper recycling alone. This low-hanging fruit has already been picked. Now, some cities are moving on to the bigger challenge: the organic materials that constitute the largest component of municipal solid waste. With less than 3 percent of food scraps currently being composted nationwide, and many non-recyclable materials like plastic bags on the rise, cities with even the most comprehensive glass, aluminum and paper recycling programs are hard-pressed to keep more than half of their total waste out of their landfills. 

Breaking the 50 percent "glass" ceiling and moving toward zero-waste is a multi-faceted undertaking. It requires a comprehensive, long-term plan that involves all stakeholders, and includes several important steps.

First, you need the infrastructure and facilities to divert and repurpose the hundreds of materials discarded daily by modern society, from electronic gadgets to old mattresses to soiled paper napkins. Second, participation has to be city-wide and mandatory -- including residential, government, business and industrial sectors. Third, some sacred cows of convenience, like the above-mentioned plastic bags, have to be banned, or at least reflect their true cost. Most importantly, along with potential fines for non-compliance, there has to be a broad outreach program to educate all residents on why zero waste is beneficial to the community and the planet, and how each of us can contribute to the goal.

San Francisco's story shows that with the right amount of political will, economic planning and civic engagement, it's possible to lay the foundation for a physical and mental environment in which the word “waste” as we know it does not need to exist.

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