Building a Smarter Planet

As cities seek to cut reliance on landfills, a green solution emerges in San Francisco

By George McGrath, Chief Operating Officer at Recology
IBM blog, Building a Smarter Planet


People around the world increasingly understand that everyone must take more care to help protect the environment. To meet this challenge, each of us must take a serious look at the garbage we generate every day. When you take a closer look at what you throw away, you see that garbage isn't garbage at all. Garbage is a mix of resources such as paper, metal, hard plastics and food scraps - all things that should be reused, recycled or composted.

Once you see that garbage isn't really waste, you begin to understand that it is possible to send nothing to landfills and truly help protect the environment, where each one of us can play a part. So what can we do to keep materials that could be reused, recycled or composted from going to landfills? To answer that question many are looking closely at San Francisco's recycling program.


The city reports that 78 percent of all garbage generated in San Francisco is diverted from landfill disposal through reduction, reuse, recycling and compost collection. That's the highest diversion rate for any large city in the country. In fact, a detailed survey conducted by The Economist Intelligence Unit cited forward recycling programs as the chief reason for listing San Francisco as the "greenest" city in North America. Residents and businesses in San Francisco cut the amount of material they send to landfills by 49.7 percent, from 730,000 tons in 2000 to 367,300 tons in 2011. Recology, a resource recovery company based in San Francisco, works closely with the city, managing and mining large sets of data to identify new opportunities to further increase diversion.


Recology's compost collection program in San Francisco has kept 1.1 million tons of organic materials out of landfills and instead used that feedstock to produce 600,000 cubic yards of finished compost. That gives farms and vineyards a viable alternative to liquid/chemical-based fertilizers. New data confirms that recycling and composting are more effective at helping protect the environment than previously realized. If you farm one acre of land conventionally for one year, you put 3,800 pounds of carbon in the atmosphere. But if you apply compost made from food scraps to that acre and farm it environmentally, you return 12,000 pounds of carbon to the soil. Not only have you reversed the direction of the carbon from the atmosphere to the soil, it is a 4.5 times difference.


The compost collection program Recology provides in San Francisco has created a total CO2E benefit of more than 347,500 metric tons. That is equal to offsetting emissions from all vehicles crossing the Bay Bridge for 2.1 years.*


Studies show that if every city in America replicated San Francisco's compost program and if we planted more trees on marginal soils, we could offset up to 20 percent of America's carbon emissions.


Sometimes the answers to difficult challenges are closer than we think. Take a few moments and look at your garbage. Paper, metal, hard plastic, food scraps - all resources. Avoid purchasing products that come in excessive packaging. Practice reuse, recycle and compost. These simple steps make a world of difference.


* Total CO2E benefit (methane avoided and carbon sequestered) calculated per protocol set by the Climate Action Registry.