Inside San Francisco's quest to recycle all trash by 2020

This article originally appeared at Yale e360.

San Francisco, the first urban area in the nation to mandate recycling and composting and begin outlawing items such as Styrofoam food containers, aims to completely eliminate the trash it sends to landfills by 2020. For the past two decades, Jack Macy has helped steer the city toward that goal.

Macy, the senior commercial zero waste coordinator for the city and county Department of the Environment, spearheaded most of San Francisco's groundbreaking waste-reduction legislation, including requiring construction debris recycling (2006), banning plastic checkout bags in retail and grocery stores (2007, expanded in 2012) and making businesses and residents separate recyclables and food waste from their trash (2009). The city now recycles or composts 80 percent of its garbage, more than double the national average. And the firsts continue — in March, San Francisco passed a new law phasing out sales of disposable water bottles on city property.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Cheryl Katz, Macy discusses San Francisco's vision for a zero-waste future, why its nearly 850,000 residents and more than 65,000 businesses make such efforts to keep their garbage out of landfills, and how obstacles such as residents' fears of "trash police" were overcome. While San Francisco has made tremendous progress, Macys says further changes are needed on both sides of the trash equation. "Part of the principle of zero waste is that the local government can't shoulder all the burden," he said, "So it's important that we encourage consumers to take responsibility for what they buy … and producer responsibility for the products they design and market."

Yale Environment 360: Please explain the zero waste concept and why it's an important issue.

Jack Macy: I think what's important is looking at nature — in nature all the waste is used in the ecosystem and is a resource. And if we look at what is considered waste, it's actually valuable material. So "zero waste" acknowledges the inherent value of discarded materials as valuable resources.

For every ton of material that we dispose of in a landfill or burn in an incinerator, to replace those products, we have to go and extract typically virgin resources, raw materials. This extraction process, and the refining, manufacturing and transportation, results in creating many times more waste — on average more than 70 times the amount of waste. And so if we can reduce, reuse, or recycle that ton, then we are saving up to 70 tons.

e360: And what about the materials in the landfill?

Macy: Those materials in the landfill are basically being wasted unless we go back in the future and mine them — which I think we'll probably be doing. But once you mix them together, you're degrading them and contaminating them. Also, when you put materials in the landfill, if they're organic materials, they're creating significant methane emissions. And then you have leachate and other pollution — you have all these other impacts. All of that is unsustainable. So if we want to move towards a sustainable system, then zero waste makes sense as a vision.

e360: San Francisco is, I think it's fair to say, the nation's zero waste exemplar. So where does San Francisco's garbage go?

Macy: We are diverting it through recycling and composting, and a certain amount of source reduction efforts. We have developed comprehensive source separation programs for all sectors.

We have blue containers for recycling, and all recyclables go in there — paper products, cardboard, newspaper, mixed paper, plastic, metal, glass containers and all rigid plastics. Then we have a green bin for all our compostables, which includes all food scraps, even meat. All of it will compost in a high-temperature commercial compost facility. We also take in paper fibers, like food-soiled paper and greasy pizza boxes, that would otherwise not be recyclable. We include a wide range of foodware paper products, as well as certified compostable plastics that are part of the food stream. And of course plant debris, garden and yard trimmings.

The third color is black, and that's really what's left over — what's not compostable or recyclable. That goes to landfill. Over time, what we find is that at least 90 percent of what people throw away can go into the blue and the green. So we have a diminishing amount going into the black.

e360: And so you're at 80 percent of refuse being diverted from landfills, but you think it could easily be 90 percent?

Macy: I wouldn't say easily. [Laughs] Theoretically we could be at 90 percent in terms of our collection. But even some of the materials we don't accept in the blue and the green, we can recycle. One good example of that is textiles. There's been textile recycling for a long time. Even plastic bags that we don't want in the blue and the green, people can take them back to many stores for recycling. So we could be over 90 percent, but we recognize that we're at a point now where it's getting hard going beyond where we are. So we're just going to have to continue working hard and getting more creative.

e360: In the early days when you first started working on waste reduction for San Francisco, what was the scenario here? How much trash was being generated and thrown out, and where was it going?

Macy: When I came here in 1994, we were around 30 to 35 percent diversion [from the landfill], and we were focused on how are we going to get to 50 percent by the year 2000. That felt like a real stretch.

At the time people were given two open boxes, or recycling crates, and they separated all their paper, fiber and cardboard, and their bottles and cans. There was no composting collection at all. Our disposal was going up. We were landfilling more materials. People were often putting out overflowing garbage cans. People often had stuff in bags.

e360: And what does it look like now on collection day?

Macy: Now you have these three, 32-gallons bins. And what you're seeing is that people are putting out the green and the blue just about every week. That took some time over this last decade, because in the beginning people weren't putting out their green cart every week. Now, people are putting out much more material in their green and their blue than in their black. And their black is often half empty or less.

e360: Since you started working on this issue for the city, San Francisco has achieved a number of firsts in its effort to reduce waste. What were some of the biggest obstacles you encountered?

Macy: I think one of the biggest fears was that we would have "garbage police" out there looking into people's bins all the time, slapping people with fines. What we said is, "We want to use this as an outreach tool, and want to be able to enforce and have fines. But that will truly be a last resort."

We would go in and work with businesses to help them set the program up. And we had incentives in place that provided an economic benefit to recycling and composting. Besides doing the right thing, the biggest incentive we had was economic — being able to save money on the rates you pay on your services …

e360: What happens to people who don't go along with the requirements to recycle and separate out their compostables?

Macy: We work closely with our private service provider, Recology, and we get the lists of their accounts that did not have recycling or composting. We send them a compliance letter. Generally it works, and sometimes it takes more threatening letters. There have been some businesses that have been fined because they didn't want any service. We do have a lot of tools — we have three different agencies that can either levy fines or liens. The bottom line is we don't want to see any recyclables and compostables in the black bin. And that's our bottom-line compliance check.

e360: Where do things stand today?

Macy: I think we've done a really good job of getting a comprehensive, convenient, source-separation program in all sectors with nearly everybody on the program. And that's been a great success. Our challenge now is, we're shifting our efforts to help people participate better, to capture more materials and to reduce their contamination. We have leveled off, so we need to work harder, and I think that's going to continue to be education — you can never do too much education.

For us, a key part of zero waste is the highest and best use of material. And if people separate the material, then it's easier to process it and you have a higher quality material to recycle or compost. So maximizing source separation is really important. How far we can go we really don't know. We think we can go further than this.

e360: And what's in that holdout?

Macy: Some of it is plastic bags. And there are other things like textiles, and certain things that shouldn't go in the black bin that are hazardous, like batteries and light bulbs and paint and other materials.

We're working to shrink that. But part of the principle of zero waste is that the local government can't shoulder all the burden, so it's important that we encourage consumers to take responsibility for what they buy and where they put it when they're done with it, and producer responsibility for the products they design and market. Producer responsibility is very important, and some of the policies we've pushed, — [banning plastic shopping bags, requiring food take-out containers to be recyclable or compostable, and restricting sales of disposable water bottles] — get at both of those.

It is hard at the local level to do as much as we'd like, so we work at the state level to help push policies. We just got good producer responsibility legislation passed in California on mattresses. We've had it on paints; hopefully we'll get it on batteries. So we're seeing progress.

e360: How much does all this recycling and composting cost, and who pays for it?

Macy: The whole system is funded through the [refuse collection] rates that residences [and businesses] pay. The average family household pays just over $34 a month. It may sound like a lot compared to other parts of the country, but we have the highest labor rates in the country.

e360: What do you think makes San Francisco residents and businesses willing to pay extra and take all these extra steps to minimize their garbage?

Macy: People like the fact that they can recycle so many things and compost all their food scraps. Our communication talks about the great benefits of composting and how the compost goes back to feed the farms and soil for healthy food. That's coming back into the city, so we're closing the nutrient-organic composting loop, and that is a great sustainability story.

People like having a healthy environment here, and they support sustainability if it doesn't feel like too much of a burden.

e360: So how hard do you think this would be to do for other cities — larger cities like New York City or Houston or cities outside the Bay Area? What advice do you have for them?

Macy: It's a fairly straightforward, common-sense system. Having it color-coded, using pictures. Having programs that are easy to use. Good education and good feedback. Financial incentives really help, especially on the commercial side. And ultimately, everybody needs to play by the same rules, so mandating participation makes sense as well.

With those key ingredients, we've demonstrated that you can go really far, and we don't see why other cities can't. We have our own challenges with being a very dense, urban city, very multilingual and cosmopolitan. We've been able to overcome those challenges and we think others can too.

e360: And what about individuals? What can people do reduce waste in their own homes?

Macy: I think people need to look at what they buy. Obviously buying with less packaging, buying in bulk, buying with materials that can be recycled and composted, and then being conscious about where you're putting it. Take on the challenge to see how little waste you can have.

SF "Painted Ladies" image by Celso Diniz via Shutterstock.