San Francisco’s Goal to Become Our First Zero-Waste City

Washington (GGM) Analysis | February 28, 2022 by Noreen WiseFounder & CEO of Gallant Gold Mediaand authorImage Credit: AdobeStock

In 2002, San Francisco set its sights on becoming the first waste-free city in the United States. Since then, the Golden City has proven itself to be a national waste management role model. Phase 1 of the city’s masterplan was to divert 75% of its waste by 2010, which it artfully achieved two years early. The speed of San Francisco’s success was likely tied to California’s Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989 which mandated that each local jurisdiction in California divert 50% of its waste materials. California fined cities $10,000 per day if they fell below 50% which led to strong compliance. 

Once 75% was reached, San Francisco soon had its eye set on 100% diversion, a true circular economy. The city’s rapid positive results were achieved through a series of strong legislative measures:

Three-stream Collection Program

The three-stream collection program (green bin for kitchen and yard scraps, blue bin for recyclables, and black bin for everything else which should be very little) is mainstream in most communities in Canada as well as many EU countries. If it’s not mainstream where you live, it means we have to work that much harder as individuals to create a three-stream program in our homes since composting is required if we are to stay below 1.5ºC and cut CO2e emissions 50% by 2030. 

San Francisco began its journey to become waste free in 2002, 20 years ago. Despite their early start, they still rushed. We have to hurry that much faster since most US communities are very far behind. 

For example, Fairfax County, Virginia, has no plan to mandate composting anytime soon, 2024 or 2025 at the earliest. But there are thousands of residents who are very green and want curbside compost pickup. Most of the schools in Fairfax County compost. The county set-up drop-off locations that are full to capacity at the end of each week, which shows how dedicated so many county residents are to green bins. Legislation would speed things up. Since those of us in Fairfax County know the county plans to wait years, and San Francisco has proven that the only thing that works is legislation that mandates composting with very steep fines, we’ll have to lobby to get the board of supervisors to move more quickly. In the meantime, we’ll have to signup for compost collection on our own.

Compost collection services are popping up in most metro areas across the country. If our towns and cities don’t have drop-off locations, and we don’t have a yard to create our own outdoor bins, we can easily signup for compost collection. Composting is an absolute necessity in saving the human species. Not only does composting cut methane, compost added to our soil boosts carbon drawdown. Putting a banana peel in a paper bag and dropping it at a compost drop-off location is not difficult. Composting is very low hanging fruit.

Methane

One third of all the food produced becomes waste, much of which in dumped into landfills. As mentioned, this rich organic material turns into methane. Landfills emit 2 billion tons of methane each year. Methane is 80 times stronger than carbon dioxide. Cutting methane from landfills is the quickest and easiest greenhouse gas to eliminate. If you’re not already composting, you can begin today. Just place all kitchen scraps in a brown paper bag and drop-off at town site each weekend. The bags can be stored in the refrigerator until you’re ready to drop-off.

Plastic Packaging

Most community waste comes from unrecyclable plastic. The vast majority of plastic is manufactured from petroleum and is toxic. The global plastic crisis that has killed millions of ocean species, and according to Sir David Attenboroughis responsible for up to one million early deaths per year, generates mountains of microplastics that are now in our food supply (we eat 100 bits of microplastics per meal, which amounts to one credit card a week, 52 credit cards per year). Recent news about nanoplastics found in the air that we breath, especially those who live and work in our cities, is that much more alarming and should motivate us to refuse plastic. Green sustainability companies have spent years inventing plastic-free alternatives for nearly every plastic-packaged product. Bar shampoo is a great example, laundry detergent sheets is another. 

Reduce-Reuse-Refuse-Upcycle

We have to be strong and refuse to buy products if there are no non-plastic alternative. Initially, this wasn’t easy for me. But, I soon found that it becomes easier with practice. Three years ago I took my first step at refusing when I refused to buy ketchup because I couldn’t find an alternative brand packaged in glass. Heinz sells ketchup in glass bottles in Canada, but not the US. So, I switched to barbecue sauce, and haven’t looked back. I also refuse to buy organic margarine because it’s only packaged in plastic. Just this past weekend, I added refusing to buy my absolute favorite salad dressing when the manufacturer switched from a glass bottle to plastic. I had to find a new favorite brand.

Reusable containers or bags instead of single-use plastic is another way to reduce waste. Upcycling is fun and creative and is an excellent way to reduce waste as well. Children love upcycling projects where they can create something new from old scraps, especially gifts for family and friends. The goal is to create a circular economy where nothing is ever thrown away.

Pay-as-you-throw

Many communities in multiple states are beginning to charge households for the amount of black bin trash they have each month. Blue recycle bins are free. But black bin is pay by quantity. “Pay-as-you-thow” (PAYT) is the common nickname cities give their black bin programs, although it’s typically a purple bag that can be purchased in stores, either a 15 gallon size or 30 gallon. Across the country, cities are finding that once households have to pay for the quantity of landfill trash they have, they drastically cut the amount without any hesitation.

Coalitions

San Francisco is a member of various zero waste and climate action coalitions whose members share ideas and brainstorm solutions:

Being part of a coalition of like-mined, green-action individuals and/or organizations is a very effective way to build momentum within a community to transition to a green lifestyle. Churches are often an effective driver of climate action, especially when they connect with the other faiths in town and form a united force.

The vast majority of initiatives that drove quick change in San Francisco were mandatory with painful consequences for anyone who failed to comply. Voting for climate candidates who truly believe that the best time to act on climate was yesterday will be what makes the difference in getting legislation passed. 

Today, the IPCC held a press conference when it released its 2022 findings on the climate crisis. The UN Secretary General, António Guterres spoke first, and very passionately stressed the urgency of action. “Now is the time to turn rage into action. Every fraction of a degree matters. Every voice can make a difference. And every second counts.”

All of us who care must be the voices in our communities that drive our leaders to act immediately and pass the much needed green legislation. If San Francisco can do it, we can all do it.

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