The U.S. produces more than 250 million tons of waste per year—30 percent of the world’s waste, though it makes up only 4 percent of the Earth’s population. Sixty-five percent of that waste ends up in landfills or incinerators. Appalled by floating trash zones like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch off California, the public says it wants to stop plastics from polluting the oceans. People say they don’t want to burn garbage if it creates toxic air pollutants, and they don’t want any more landfill mountains. But if you’re a city official, crafting a waste-disposal system that is financially and environmentally sustainable is a monumental challenge. What’s different about San Francisco is that it is continuing to push the boundary of what’s possible—leaning on a combination of high tech, behavior modification and sheer political will.
For decades, recycling and composting programs have enjoyed broad political support from San Francisco mayors, legislators and voters. “They’ve always been willing to do things other cities haven’t tried yet,” says Nick Lapis, director of advocacy for the nonprofit Californians Against Waste. “They’ve pioneered a lot of programs that either are commonplace everywhere or are going to be soon.”
Curbside composting bins joined recycling bins in 2001, and composting and recycling became mandatory in 2009. Now, city residents and business actually compost more material than they recycle. The city has also regulated construction and demolition debris, diverting much of it from landfills through recycling and reuse. Wood goes to steam-driven power plants in North Carolina to be burned as fuel; metal goes to scrap yards, then to foundries; sheetrock is composted; crushed concrete and asphalt go into new roads and pathways.
The city has also banned single-use plastic bags and other hard-to-recycle items. It recycles items other cities don’t: film plastic, clamshell food containers, and lower-grade plastics such as yogurt cups. San Francisco found new markets for some items after China shut the door to them last year. Its cutting-edge sorting technology produces cleaner, purer bales of recyclables, which are easier to sell.
Yet despite its green ethos, San Francisco has found reducing waste toward zero harder than expected. The amount of trash it sends to landfills declined by about half from 2000 to 2012, from 729,000 tons a year to 367,000. But then the gains stopped, and the amount of trash sent to landfills has crept up since, to 427,000 tons last year. The reasons include San Francisco’s spiking population, its residents’ increasing wealth and consumption, and the hyper-convenient plastics and other packaging that are more common in American life than they were a decade ago. [Continue reading…]