Curbside Recycling and Composting in San Francisco
Sep 23, 2013


There’s a scandal driving curbside recycling and composting initiatives. Did you know the average American citizen produces about 5 pounds of waste each day? That doesn’t sound like much, but when you consider a city the size of San Francisco, with a population of over 814,000 people, the city likely has the capacity to produce over 4,075,000 pounds of trash every day. That would be like throwing away over 1,000 passenger cars every single day. It’s truly a scandalous amount of waste.

But the real scandal is that the average U.S. city only recycles 34% of the waste it produces. Shockingly, some U.S. cities recover far less than the average, with one city sadly cited as recovering as little as 3% of its waste through its recycling efforts. Clearly, this qualifies as a scandal when there are cities proving that successful large scale waste recovery can be done. Let’s examine San Francisco.

Curbside Recycling and Composting in San Francisco

San Francisco’s Curbside Recycling & Composting Program

By having the most aggressive curbside recycling and composting ordinances so far in the U.S., San Francisco is now successfully diverting 80% of the city’s waste from its landfills. And by the year 2020, their goal is to reach a 100% diversion rate.

But just how has San Francisco, with its large size, challenging topography, and complicated socio-economic demographics, managed to achieve a level of success so far above and beyond the national average? And how-on-earth do they have the audacity to even aim for zero waste status in less than 7 years from now? Let’s look at how the program operates today.

A Resident’s Perspective

The San Francisco Department of the Environment (SF Environment) and the San Francisco Department of Public Works has partnered with a company called Recology to handle the city’s waste disposal needs. Any person living in San Francisco would be quite familiar with the three different types of trash bins supplied by Recology; a blue bin for recyclable materials such as paper, plastics, cardboard and glass; a green bin for compostable organic materials such as food scraps and yard waste; and a black bin for non-recyclable and non-compostable waste. Every week, residents of San Francisco are required to sort their trash between these three separate bins. Fines from $100 to $1000 can be issued to those who do not comply.

So far there have been no penalty fees issued. Early in the morning, before the fleet of CNG-fueled, or hybrid diesel-fueled collection trucks come to pick up the trash, the city’s team of “garbage auditors” is deployed on foot; inspecting the bins, and taking note of which residents are not in compliance. Later that evening, another team visits those residents to inform them of their non-compliance and helps answer any questions they may have about the sorting process.

Curbside Recycling and Composting in San Francisco

What About Businesses?

For businesses such as offices and restaurants, the basic concept is the same. Blue bins are for recycling, green bins are for composting and the black bins are for landfill waste. Recology also performs a garbage audit and offers consultation services to help determine a waste management strategy that will best suit each business’ needs.

Altering Behaviors & Challenging Culturally Accepted Norms

It’s no secret that America is one big throw-away society and that most Americans are trained from a very early age to believe that newer is better. The products Americans buy are often intentionally designed for limited use, designed to fail or simply become less desirable over time. This pressures the customer to want to buy again, practically guaranteeing that the company making those products will be able to generate a steady stream of revenue for itself. It’s called planned obsolescence.

Living in a materialistic nation, most Americans don’t pay much attention to the wasteful nature of the products they purchase or throw away. They’re used to the convenience of simply tossing everything into one bin to be hauled away out of sight and out of mind. But participants in recycling and composting programs are required to make a small lifestyle adjustment; that have to think. They have to take a moment to determine the best and most eco-friendly way to dispose or repurpose their no-longer used items. But as we’ve already seen, San Francisco makes it as easy as possible. And for this convenience here, as well as in other cities, there may be some increases, however small, to the rates people pay for their waste management services.

Pay As You Throw

To help address cost concerns, San Francisco has structured its waste management fees to act like an incentive program where increased recycling and composting are rewarded with discounts and cost savings. Essentially, residents and businesses pay only for what they throw away.

In the beginning, people and businesses did not have to pay for the recycling or composting bins, only the waste bins going to the landfills. However, as the city upped its goal to zero waste, it necessitated a slight rate hike to cover increased infrastructure costs. Even so, San Franciscans aren’t paying significantly more or less for their waste disposal needs than neighboring communities that are doing less recycling and composting.

The idea of incentivizing behaviors can also be witnessed in the way the city has ‘banned’ plastic shopping bags. It’s not so much a ban as it is a way to encourage customers to use their own reusable bags. Customers are charged 10 cents for each new checkout bag used during a retail purchase. So, if you need 10 plastic bags full of groceries, it’ll tack on an additional $1 to your grocery bill. They can avoid the charge by bringing their own bag, or not using a bag at all for small purchases. The business keeps the entire checkout bag charge to help offset the costs of replacing plastic bags with compliant checkout bags such as compostable plastic, paper with 40% post-consumer recycled content, and washable, reusable bags designed for at least 125 uses.

And ultimately, San Francisco and other composting cities have found that it is cheaper to compost than dump garbage, because it extends the life of landfills by saving space. Diverting food waste from landfills also reduces carbon emissions and the risk of potential groundwater pollution. Plus, the end product of composting can be reused and resold as fertilizer.

Curbside Recycling and Composting in San Francisco

Learn As You Go

Remember how there weren’t any penalty fees issued to residents found to be in non-compliance? That’s because, instead of slapping wrists and imposing fees, San Francisco is taking the necessary time to ease its citizens into the program, in as friendly and convenient a manner as possible. Home visits, brochures and handouts, signs, billboards, print and TV advertisements all play a crucial role in spreading the word to everyone.

“When we first started outreach for the program,” says Guillermo Rodriguez, spokesperson for SF Environment, “we created multi-lingual composting, recycling, and landfill signs to help people understand which items go where. The initial signs used more words than images. As the program has progressed, we have learned that using images of material that is commonly composted, recycled, and sent to the landfill (rather than words) is more effective.”

As you can see, a great amount of time and resources is being invested in educating San Francisco’s residents and businesses.

In addition, the websites for both Recology and the San Francisco Department of the Environment (SF Environment) provide extensive information in user-friendly formats, making them easy to navigate and enjoyable to learn.

In essence, SF Environment wants citizens to take a closer look at their own garbage and become truly aware of the value of the recoverable materials contained within.

Building on Success: Approaching Zero Waste

With an 80% waste recovery rate, San Francisco has proven that its citizens and businesses are buying in to the curbside recycling and composting program. Just a few years ago, a large portion of the rest of the nation laughed when the city proclaimed that it would achieve a 75% waste recovery rate by the year 2020, but no one is laughing now. And having surpassed its waste recovery goals ten years ahead of schedule, San Francisco is further motivated to pursue its zero waste goals by 2020.

The higher the peak, the tougher the climb…and the final stretch will pose a lot of challenges. But, if San Francisco’s successes, thus far, are any indication of how well they’ll improve into 2020, we wouldn’t want to bet against them.

Does your community have curbside recycling and composting, or do you wish it would? Contact AUS for help in starting a community program for sustainable waste management.


The following is an opinion post by David Johnson. David blogs and creates content for several companies on topics related to energy, green building, sustainability and the environment.

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