San Francisco Sets 75 Percent Recycling Goal
by Trish Thiel

The city of San Francisco recycles 46 percent of its waste. The city's Board of Supervisors wants to raise that to 75 percent by the year 2010. The Board also will take that a step further. Once the city achieves a 50 percent recycling rate, they will set a deadline for reaching zero waste.

Mark Westlund, San Francisco Department of the Environment spokesman, believes that organics recycling will be the key to reaching these goals. The city is continuing to search for markets for items that are currently not being recycled.

Mr. Westlund said San Francisco is a very dense city, second only to New York. "We have constraints here. People picture California as green with large homes and lots, but San Francisco does not have that. Most residents do not have yards. We don't have the big suburban lawns."

The city has started testing organics recycling, consisting of mostly food waste, in half of the city's residential areas. Along with some food-oriented businesses, the city already is taking 300 tons of food and other organic waste and turning it into compost.

Norcal Waste Systems, Inc. runs the Jepson Praire Organics Compost Facility, near the town of Vacaville, California. San Francisco has begun collecting organic waste as part of its recycling program.

"We started testing the 'Fantastic Three" collection system in the residential neighborhoods," said Mr. Westlund. "In the areas where we are testing, the recycling rate has increased by 90 percent."

The "Fantastic Three" means that residents and businesses are provided with three containers- one for organics, one for all other recyclables and one for non-recyclables. San Francisco has a pay-as-you-throw program. Residents pay to have non-recyclables taken, but there is no charge for recycling.

The organics container is for food, yard clippings for those who have them, and soiled paper and other paper that normally would not be recycled. "People can include the waxed paper, such as paper milk cartons, in the organics recycling container," explained Mr. Westlund.

All other recyclables, glass, plastic, paper, goes into another recycling container. The recyclables are collected and taken to a single-stream recycling facility, where items are sorted.

Glass is sorted by color and sold locally. Mr. Westlund said sorting the glass by color gives San Francisco the best price. Some glass is broken and cannot be sorted. This is collected and sold as mixed glass, which is not as valuable as sorted glass.

Since starting the organics recycling program, there is no paper loss in the single-stream recycling system.

"Any paper that becomes soiled can go into the organic mix," said Mr. West-lund. "The paper also has created more of a cushion for the glass, helping prevent breakage, so we are now recovering a larger percentage of sortable glass."

Organics head to a facility about 70 miles outside of the city limits.

Mr. Westlund described the organic recycling equipment as a "huge sausage machine." The organics are ground up and stuffed into 100-foot long plastic bags, specially designed for this use. Air hoses inside these bags get needed oxygen to the organics, allowing the material to break down. After six weeks the bags are opened and the compost is aired out, rotated and sifted through for anything that needs further decomposing. Farms around the San Francisco Bay area use this fertilizer.

Motiviating businesses to recycle more is how San Francisco will reach its goals, said Mr. Westlund. He said the bulk of waste comes from businesses.

"Some restaurants and other food related businesses are already recycling 90 percent of their waste," he said. "Zero waste is doable. We want zero going to the landfill."

The 2000 census showed that San Francisco residents and businesses create 1.6 million tons of waste each year. Currently 46 percent of that is diverted. Mr. Westlund said, "1.6 million tons is the same weight as two Golden Gate bridges. San Francisco is essentially sending trash equaling the weight of the Golden Gate bridge to landfills each year."

San Francisco has had an official recycling program since 1980. Before that, any recycling efforts were made by private businesses or individuals. Since 1932 Norcal has been collecting San Francisco's waste and recyclables. The city has a voter-driven rate process, where renewals are handled through a vote.

"Our system is structured so that the more the company recycles, the more the company gets paid," said Mr. Westlund. "Currently, under the pay-as-you-throw system, the average San Franciscan household has a $16 a month garbage cost, which is less than average in the bay area."

When testing the Fantastic Three program, many businesses sponsored events to help spread the word on how the system worked. Neighborhood meetings were held and the Department of the Environment utilized direct sales techniques to reach residents about the program. Mr. Westlund said to increase business participation, the department honors the "Commercial Recycler of the Year," which includes cash awards to the best recyclers.

Mr. Westlund added, "The biggest things we have to do to increase recycling is improve participation and find markets for the recycled materials. Having an end product for recyclables is the key."