Recycling is deep in San Francisco’s roots

Waste & Recycling News, 8.6.13, by Kerri Jansen

3bins-overheadSan Francisco is North America’s leader in curbside recycling, with a current recycling rate of 80% in a country that averages around 34% diversion. With an aggressive goal of zero waste by 2020, this is a city that’s dedicated to recycling, a culture that some say stretches back to its very beginnings.

San Francisco’s roots are in recycling, said Robert Reed, public relations manager for Recology Sunset Scavenger, the city’s recycling collector. During the gold rush in the mid-1800s, everything from bones to cans found a second, and third, use.

“They didn’t call it recycling them. They called it survival,” Reed said. “It’s the very nature of San Francisco.”

In the late 1800s, scavengers in horse-drawn wagons patrolled the streets collecting bones, rage, and bottles to be sorted and resold. Rags were made into paper, bottles washed for reuse. The city’s first gas-powered collection trucks had special racks built into them to carry newspapers for recycling. Like the rest of the nation, San Francisco joined in wartime recycling efforts. Scrap metal, rubber, and even cooking oils were collected and repurposed to help with material shortages.

The end of World War II brought a boom of new products, new packaging and consumer culture, and with it new challenges for the recycling industry. Like many cities, San Francisco embraced the environmental movement in the ‘70s and’80s. Volunteer run recycling programs sprang up in many communities to collect and recycle bottles, cans and paper

1974-recycling-truckSan Francisco kicked off the 1980s with its first city curbside recycling program. Residents placed bottles and cans in 12-gallon bins, and set out newspaper, magazines and junk mail in a paper grocery bag, Reed said.

The California Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989 set a new direction for the state’s waste management by mandating each municipality achieve 25% diversion buy 1995 and 50% by 2000. These prompted many cities statewide to institute their first curbside recycling programs; in progressive San Francisco residents were asking for large bins to recycling more, Reed said.

In the ‘90s the city determined that 30% of the waste it disposed was food scraps, a material that would have to be tackled to meet the city’s progressive recycling goals. In 1996, the city began testing several different recycling configurations incorporating organics collection, eventually settling on a program called the Fantastic Three. Piloted in 1999 and adopted citywide in 2000, the Fantastic Three program utilizes three collection bins: one each for recyclables, organics and landfill-bound waste.

Neighborhoods receiving new bins, larger then the ones they were already using, typically saw a 30% increase in recycling in the first few weeks after delivery, Reed said.

But San Francisco didn’t want to stop at the state’s goal of 50% diversion.

“San Francisco wanted to do better than that. So San Francisco set its own goals, higher goals,” Reed said.

In 2002, the city adopted a goal of 75% diversion by 2010, and no waste to landfills by 2020. The target may have even been conservative: the city hit the 75% mark two years early.

“San Francisco residents and businesses really embraced recycling and composting in a huge way, far more than any other cities in the United States,” Read said. “San Franciscans – San Francisco residents and San Francisco businesses – want San Francisco to be the fist city in North America to divorce it self from the landfill.”

Under its current recycling program residents can place all types of recyclables in a single 32-gallon blue cart. San Francisco “left resin codes in the rearview mirror,” Reed said, accepting an inclusive range of materials and putting the responsibility on the city’s recycling plant, Recycle Central, to determine which material goes where.

The 200,000-square-foot Recycle Central, built in 2002 on Pier 96, processes 600 to 700 tons of recyclables each day, separating them into 16 different commodities.

San Francisco has paired its innovation collection model with educational programs designed to ensure residents understand what they can recycle. Since the city is very diverse, with 27 different languages spoken, bins carry stickers showing what can be recycled in pictures. Cart inspectors periodically check for violations and follow up with residents who may need additional instruction.

The city has also covered it collection trucks with photos that appear to show the contents of the truck – trash, recyclables or organics – to encourage residents to be aware of what they’re throwing away.

“Every other garbage company on the planet trying to hide garbage,” Reed said. “In San Francisco we’re trying to get people to look at it and see that it's full of resources.”