Recycling & Composting Now Mandatory in San Francisco

Posted on October 22, 2009. Filed under: News | Tags: , , |

San Francisco is leading the way in whats becoming a national trend towards more conscious waste-management. Green Inc. reports on a city ordinance that was signed in June and officially took effect yesterday mandating home and business owners to sign up for recycling and composting pick up service or face a fine of up to $100o. The city already has the highest recycling rate in the country at 72% but officials see the law as a way to increase this rate even further and add the composting element in order to reduce the waste headed for the landfills. The city’s ambitious waste management goals include reducing recyclable waste that ends up in landfills 75% by 2010 and becoming completely zero waste by 2020. San Fransico is certainly making headlines, but across the country, the small resort town of Nantucket has had a progressive waste management program in place for over a decade. It mandates recycling of plastics and aluminums as well as batteries, tires and household appliances. This initiative has cut the waste that ends up in the landfill to only 8% of the total waste stream.

So what does zero waste mean? The New York Times answered that question in an article earlier this week,

“The [zero waste] movement is simple in concept if not always in execution: Produce less waste. Shun polystyrene foam containers or any other packaging that is not biodegradable. Recycle or compost whatever you can.

The motivation for a zero waste strategy is not only improved efficiency, but also the fact that landfills are quickly reaching capacity and it is becoming increasingly more difficult to find sites appropriate for new ones. Also, the compostable materials currently taking up space in landfills release large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas 21 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, that contributes to global warming.  Composting breaks down materials so that they do not release methane into the atmosphere. Plus, compost works as natural fertilizer that can replace chemical fertilizer, which causes water contamination problems. So optimizing the system of waste management definitely has climate, environmental and land-use benefits.

Still, it is difficult to convince citizens and businesses that paying closer attention to their waste stream is a priority. A basic problem is finding someone to haul your compost (or even recycling) in a city that is not as progressive as San Francisco or Nantucket (where residents deliver their own recyclables to the recycling plant, which has become a town meeting place). Often, there is just not enough demand so it is difficult for hauling companies to succeed and cater to smaller clients. Thats where business associations like the Atlanta-based Green Foodservice Alliance, can make a big difference. By brining together restaurants in “zero-waste” zones around Atlanta, they can help encourage restaurants to compost and help haulers get enough demand for their services to stay in business. Still, according to Steve Simon, whose company owns several Atlanta restaurants,  the biggest challenge in his restaurants’ composting efforts was to find a reliable hauler for their foodwaste, attesting to the fact that this is still a new industry and there is a lot of learning involved.

The learning curve is steep not just for hauling companies, but for residents and business who must change their habits to sort their trash so that it can be recycled or composted. In San Francisco, the city’s deparment of the environment and the waste management company, Recology, have been engaged in an effort to increase awareness about the city ordinance. There is also confusion about which products can be recycled and which can be composted. When Santa Monica, CA banned polysterene foam food containers and replaced them with biodegradable altneratives, some of these ended up in recycling bins where they melted and complicated the recylcing process. According to the EPA’s materials management branch chief Jon Johnston,

 “Technology exists, but a lot of education still needs to be done”

Its certainly great news that a large and visible city like San Francisco is taking a strong stance towards sustainable waste managment. Hopefully, this type of action will inspire other cities in the United States to follow. And P.S., if you think seperating your out your compostables and recyclables is bad, Taiwan mandates (under threat of stiff fines) that 33 items are sorted for recylcing in government issues clear plastic bags and that residents carry trash to the trash truck at collection time to make sure that they are keenly aware of just how much waste they are generating.


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