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Will San Francisco Achieve Its Goal of Zero Waste by 2020?

In 2002, San Francisco made a promise that it intends to keep: by 2020 the city will eliminate all waste that is neither recycled nor composted.

In 2002, San Francisco made a promise that it intends to keep: by 2020 the city will eliminate all waste that is neither recycled nor composted; thus there will be no need for landfill and incinerators, two major sources of pollution.

At the time, the state of California had already set a target of 50 percent recycling of solid waste by 2010, but San Francisco knew it could do better.

“We wanted to go further,” says Jared Blumenfeld, former head of San Francisco’s department of the environment and now Environmental Protection Agency regional administrator for the Pacific southwest. “We agreed on an ambitious zero-waste target and then on a date, which was far enough away for us to find the means of achieving it, but close enough for everyone to feel immediately concerned.”

So the Zero Waste target was set for 2020, with a 75 percent step on the way in 2010. And the city got to work.

5 Huge Steps Towards No More Landfill

1. Compost Food Waste

After a study revealed that 90 percent of the waste ending up in landfill could be recycled, and the biggest share of that 90 percent was food, the city decided to begin by targeting hotels. The Hilton, which serves 7,500 meals a day, was the first test. It was pretty straightforward: they set up a simple system where collection carts containing recyclable or compostable material cost much less a month on the bill than those containing non-recyclable waste. The system was a success. In the first year the Hilton saved $200,000, and the scheme was extended to the whole catering industry. In four years, from 2001 to 2005, San Francisco went from 42 percent recycled waste to 60 percent.

2. Compulsory Debris Recycling

In 2006, after negotiations lasting two years, then mayor Gavin Newsom introduced the mandatory construction and demolition debris recovery ordinance, requiring the building trade to recycle at least two-thirds of its debris such as concrete, steel and timber at a registered facility. Companies failing to comply ran the risk of their registration being suspended for six months. At the same time, the city undertook to only use recycled materials for public works such as asphalting or gutters.

3. No More Plastic Bags

In March, 2007, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags. The Board of Supervisors approved outlawing free plastic checkout bags at large supermarkets and in large chain pharmacies. To encourage shoppers to reuse their own bags, there would be a charge for paper or compostable plastic bags.

4. Mandatory Recycling and Composting For Everyone

Perhaps the most controversial move came in 2009, when the city brought in compulsory recycling and composting for all residents. The same system applied as for the catering trade. Each house or building received a detailed bill: the more waste residents set aside for recycling or composting, and the less they put in trash carts, the lower their bill. Don’t feel like obeying the rules for proper placement of waste? City residents first receive warnings, and if that doesn’t work, they are fined anywhere from $100 to $1,000.

5. Banning Plastic Water Bottles

Earlier this year, San Francisco became the first major city in the U.S. to ban the sale or distribution of small plastic water bottles on public property, building on a nationwide effort to curb waste from the billion-dollar industry. Waivers are permissible if there is no other adequate source of water available. The city authorities plan to install drinking fountains, and compostable cups will be handed out at large gatherings.

How well have these steps worked? In 2010 the city achieved a 77 percent diversion rate, and it has since topped 80 percent. So it is still some way from the goal of 100 percent in 2020, but how do other cities stack up?

The most recent figures available, from 2011, reveal that across the country a handful of municipalities are drastically reducing the amount of waste they send to landfills. Seattle recycles or composts more than half of what its residents toss out, while Los Angeles recycles or composts about two-thirds of its garbage.

Those numbers stand in stark contrast to the rest of the U.S., where the Environmental Protection Agency estimates only about a third of waste is recycled or composted. In Houston and New York the number is 26 percent, while in San Antonio it drops to 18 percent.

As a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, I take for granted the simple, color-coded cart system consisting of a green bin for composting, a blue bin for recycling and a smaller black bin for trash. The fact that we could so quickly get used to throwing garbage into small bags while our compost bags are bulging with leftovers speaks to the potential of reaching similar milestones anywhere else in the U.S.

If the city doesn’t reach 100 percent zero waste by 2020, it will be because there are some products out there that just can’t be recycled, and yet people still buy them.

But San Francisco is getting pretty close.

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