In San Francisco, a city that prides itself on being green, residents soon may find themselves required by law to compost and recycle. The proposed law, called for by Mayor Gavin Newsom, is expected to be approved by the Board of Supervisors by the end of the year.

“We’ve already reached the people who know it’s the right thing to do,” says Thea Hillman with the San Francisco Department of the Environment. “Now we’re at the folks who need not so much the carrot but more of the stick.”

Mandatory recycling laws are already in place in several other cities, including Seattle, Philadelphia, and San Diego. San Francisco would be the first to introduce mandatory composting.

The proposed ordinance takes a multi-faceted approach to reducing waste. The most impact may come from a requirement that landlords provide adequate recycling and composting for their tenants.

Compostable and recyclable materials would also be banned from the city’s transfer station, enabling trash collectors to enforce the rule by simply not collecting garbage carts that contain “incorrect” materials. This method, which relies on a process of warning tags, has already been used successfully in Seattle and other cities.

In order to make recycling more accessible, the public would be allowed to dispose small amounts of recyclables and compostables at restaurants and café’s. Public event planners would need to include enough carts for revelers to toss their trash responsibly. Though the city has already achieved the nation’s highest recycling rates, diverting 70 percent of its trash from landfills, city officials say that the mandatory program is necessary to reach their target of 75 percent recycling by 2010.

By 2020, the city has vowed to achieve zero waste. Waste reduction efforts range from a Styrofoam ban in restaurants, to prohibiting disposable plastic bags in large supermarkets and pharmacies, to pursuing wider markets and technologies for recycling.

“As with a lot of things that happen here in San Francisco, one reason we’re doing this is because we’d like other people to follow suit,” says Deanna Simon with the city’s Zero Waste program.

A series of perks that have made the voluntary recycling program successful will continue under the mandatory system. Cost is one prominent incentive: Customers who use smaller garbage carts pay lower prices, said Hillman.

City officials estimate that three out of four pieces of “garbage” are actually recyclable. Residents can save money by recycling and composting more and ordering a smaller trash cart for the little that is left over. Businesses can save up to 75% off their garbage bill with increased recycling and composting.*

The city’s pioneering food waste recycling program is one reason so little waste goes to the landfill, said Robert Reed, spokesman for Norcal Waste Systems, the parent company of two businesses that collect roughly half of San Francisco’s waste. The program, which started in 1996, lets residents compost food scraps – from chicken bones to coffee grounds – as well as used napkins, milk cartons, and other food-soiled paper.

Customers are also encouraged to recycle an unusually broad range of glass, paper, and plastic. Hard plastic toys, flower bots, and 5-gallon buckets are all accepted, taken to Pier 96, and sorted by hand.

“Pretty much anything plastic, except for plastic bags and Styrofoam, can now go into the recycling,” says Simon. “That includes a big wheel or a rubber ducky or a cup.”

Despite the program’s flexibility, the 70 percent diversion rate is derived predominately from construction and demolition debris, as well as other industrial-scale recycling, such as sludge.

Homes and businesses recycle much less efficiently, keeping only about 40 percent of their trash from the dump.

“It’s just as easy to put chicken bones and cantaloupe skins in the green cart as it is in the garbage,” says Reed. “It’s just a matter of being attentive and helping people cultivate the right habits.”

Rental units and large apartment buildings often lag behind owner-occupied homes because landlords are reluctant to provide carts for their tenants.

Apartment owners are the main group with doubts about the plan, which had an overall approval rate of 85 percent, according to a survey the city conducted.

“It’s seen as a space issue sometimes, and some people are concerned about composting because there is a myth about odors and rodents,” says Hillman. “With this law, landlords would be required to provide these options to their tenants; that would have huge ramifications since San Francisco is about 67 percent rentals.”

Already, 300 tons of biodegradable waste is trucked to a composting facility north of the city each day. If recycling becomes mandatory, that figure would jump significantly, Reed said.

The finished compost generated by the city, which is approved for use on organic soils, is sold local farms and vineyards.

“Whenever people buy food at a farmers market in the city, or at a restaurant that serves local produce, there’s a good chance that the food was grown with compost they generated,” says Simon. “It’s a beautiful example of closing the loop.”

*Correction of original text, which implied all customers could receive a 75 pecent discount, as opposed to businesses alone.

Story by Jacoba Charles. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in June 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008

San Francisco closes the lid on garbage
Recycling and composting expected to be mandatory by year's end.