The City of San Francisco mandates that the residents compost their food scraps. Cheryl Evans/azcentral.com
SAN FRANCISCO — How do you throw away a cup of coffee in San Francisco? You take the lid off and put it in the recycle bin. The soiled cup goes in the compost bin. Nothing goes to a landfill.
That’s the law.
“For us, sending organic material to the landfill, there is no value to it,” said Guillermo Rodriguez, spokesman for the San Francisco Department of the Environment. “It absolutely has no value.”
Instead, San Francisco turns food waste into nutrient-rich and profitable compost. It’s a complicated process that hinges on residents, businesses and tourists all buying in. So far, most have. That's led to a monumental reduction in garbage sent to landfills. Program advocates say the compost made from municipal waste helps farmers survive drought and pulls carbon from the atmosphere.
San Francisco paved the way for cities such as New York to ramp up curbside composting for its residents.
By comparison, only three of Arizona’s 10 largest cities offer any sort of curbside compost collection, and those programs prohibit residential food waste in the bins. With the opening of a new industrial composting facility, Phoenix could be on the verge of making food waste a win.
San Francisco found a way to.
Before 2009, composting in San Francisco was done much the way it’s done in other American cities. Environmentally minded people, restaurants and farmers collected food and organic waste for personal use.
After 2009, composting in San Francisco became something very different. It was now something everyone in the city was required to do by law.
Eight years ago, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed the Mandatory Recycling & Composting Ordinance. Among other things, it requires everyone, from residents to tourists, to separate their trash into one of three bins: recycling, landfill and compost.
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When it comes to food waste, that means the vegetable peelings in your kitchen or the leftover sandwich at the deli cannot go in the trash with everything else. They must be put in a separate organics bin. Then, that waste is composted and sold in bulk to farms and wineries around California.
The law requiring food waste to be composted is part of San Francisco’s aggressive goal to hit zero waste by 2020. In other words, in less than three years, the city wants all of its waste to be recycled or composted, rather than sent to landfills.
San Francisco was the first high-profile U.S. city to adopt such goals. At 80 percent, it has the highest landfill diversion rate in the country. Diversion rates measure the amount of waste that is redirected from ending up in a landfill.
Phoenix, by comparison, has a diversion rate of 20 percent with the goal of hitting 40 percent by 2020. Nationwide, the average is about 35 percent, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
San Francisco's zero-waste goal includes recycling and many initiatives in addition to food waste. But since the EPA says organic materials such as paper and food are the largest component of municipal solid waste, adding mandatory composting makes a significant difference.
Jenelle Blanchard lives in the exclusive Nob Hill neighborhood. She’s one of more than 870,000 people who live in San Francisco.
Like other residents, the 34-year-old copywriter puts her garbage in three bins: blue for recyclables, green for compostable materials and black for landfill.
Blanchard has lived in the city for 11 years, so she was around when composting became mandatory. But she doesn’t remember when the city flipped the switch because it didn’t seem like much of a change, she said. She was already used to separating out recyclables, so adding a compost bin for her food scraps didn’t make a big difference.
“The only thing that felt different was making sure I had the right compost bags,” she said.
Among the things Blanchard can put in her compost bin are meat (including the bones), greasy food containers, dairy, cotton balls and pet hair.
San Francisco residents pay less per month for their recycle and compost bins than they do for their landfill bins. It’s a financial incentive to encourage participation, Rodriguez said.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a liberal city or conservative city, when you knock on the door and... the government tells you ‘I’m here to save you money,’ people listen,” he said. “That has worked really well for us.”
Phoenix has a similar program, though it focuses on recycling and not organic waste. The Save as You Reduce and Recycle Program lets residents downsize their landfill containers from large to medium and save $3 a month on their waste bill. The idea behind the program, which started in 2014, is that people will recycle more and send less to landfills if they have less space in the trash bin. More than 11,750 households are participating, according to the city. Phoenix residents can sign up on the city's website.
Last year, more than 25 million people visited the San Francisco area, according to the San Francisco Travel Association.
It’s safe to say that most of those people are not required to compost wherever they call home. They’re probably used to seeing a bin for trash and maybe a second one for recycling but probably not a third for compost.
“If you’re used to throwing all of your trash in one bin, then suddenly having more than one bin can be a bit overwhelming,” said Lauren Sively of the Ferry Building, a popular food hall and tourist attraction on the city’s famous Embarcadero. “We try to make it as user friendly as we can.”
The Ferry Building’s Big Belly trash cans are color-coded (black for landfill, blue for recycle and green for organics) and labeled in English, Chinese and Spanish. Large posters on the front show what can be thrown in each bin.
The photos of food, containers and other materials are of things people would probably have to throw away after a visit to the building. An image of a Kikkoman soy sauce packet, likely from Delica Japanese delicatessen, is on the landfill sign. Newspaper, perhaps from the Book Passage bookstore, goes into recycle and soiled paper from a Cowgirl Sidekick grilled-cheese sandwich goes in the compost bin.
“You see people come up to bins and there’s some hesitation and looking at the signs … trying to figure it out,” Sively said.
The photos are an extra layer of helpfulness, intended to let visitors who can’t read the signs understand what goes in each receptacle. Bins at parks and restaurants from Union Square to Golden Gate Park, Market Street to Alcatraz have signs showing what goes inside, too.
San Francisco creates a lot of waste every day. More than 2,300 tons, according to Robert Reed, spokesperson for the city’s waste hauler Recology.
Of that, about 650 tons per day is compost and 625 tons is recyclables, he said, making San Francisco one of the only cities in America where curbside composting has surpassed recycling.
About half of the remaining 1,100 tons could be recycled or composted, he added.
So who’s in charge of all that waste?
“A lot of city governments have contentious relationships with their haulers,” said Julie Bryant, a zero-waste coordinator for the city. “We know we can try and experiment with a lot of things because Recology is going to be here for a long time. The partnership with them is one of the keys to our success.”
The Valley has a more competitive market, with several big-name waste haulers such as Waste Management and Republic Services operating side by side.
The simple explanation is that compost is decomposed organic matter that’s added to soil to enrich it.
Making compost on an industrial scale is a Rube Goldberg machine of shredding, moisture monitoring and aeration. In San Francisco, it’s done at facilities outside the city limits. Before the process starts, the organic materials go through a series of screenings to weed out contaminants. Then, a formula of “green” materials such as coffee grounds and kitchen scraps combine with “browns” like dry leaves and branches to feed the microorganisms that do all the work.
“It’s all about feeding microbial colonies in the soil,” Reed said.
The result is a nutrient-rich soil component called humus.
A study published in the Ecological Society of America journal from researchers at the University of California at Berkeley found that compost applied to rangeland in California:
“Humus is a natural sponge. It both attracts and retains water ... (using compost) helped the state through the drought,” Reed said.
It’s no wonder farmers often call compost black gold.
Turning food waste into compost is closing an energy loop. This is an essential part of a circular economy, where resources are regenerated rather than wasted.
While it’s more costly to process compostable material than that bound for a landfill, there’s a return on the investment. Trash in a landfill just sits there. Compost has many uses.
Recology sells compost by the cubic yard and keeps the profits. Prices start at about $9 a yard, according to Reed.
“You don’t sell dirt for a lot of money,” he said.
Around the country, garbage that was recycled or composted saved the emissions equivalent of over 38 million passenger cars, according to the most recent data from the EPA.
San Francisco may have been the first major American city to implement curbside composting and zero-waste policies, but others are following.
New York City and Los Angeles have pledged to be zero waste by 2030. With more than 1 million residents and 60 million visitors, New York City will have the largest curbside composting program once it's in full swing.
Dallas, San Diego, Seattle and Minneapolis have jumped on the zero-waste wagon. In late July, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie signed a law establishing a statewide goal to reduce food waste 50 percent by 2030.
Phoenix wants to double its diversion rate by 2020 and be zero waste by 2050. Much of that focus is on recycling, though composting organics is being explored, too. Up to 48 percent of what was thrown in the garbage was compostable material, according to 2015 data from the city.
The city recently opened a state-of-the-art complex called the 27th Avenue Compost Facility. Composting in the desert has its own challenges, among them a hot and dry climate punctuated by a fickle monsoon season.
The facility was designed by Green Mountain Technologies and Arrington Watkins Architects. Its first day of composting was June 19. It can process up to 110,000 tons of green and food waste per year and could divert 11 percent of Phoenix’s waste from landfills, according to the city.
"Phoenix has authored one of the most remarkable sustainability turnaround stories in the country and our new compost facility starts an important new chapter," Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton said in a written statement. "Opening this facility will help us reach our ambitious waste reduction goals while building our circular economy."
For now, the 5,942 homes participating in the organics collection program can only put yard trimmings in their curbside composting bins. Food waste at the 27th Avenue Compost Facility is collected from the Aviation Department and Phoenix Convention Center.
Mesa and Tempe also offer limited curbside organics pickup. Like Phoenix, those cities' systems are confined to yard trimmings and prohibit food waste.
There are private options for those who want curbside composting in the Valley. People can sign up and pay extra to get their food waste picked up from companies such as Recycled City.
The movement toward zero waste, and reducing food that ends up in landfills, is growing.
Even Congress has noticed. Arizona Rep. Raul Grijalva is one of nine Democrats to sponsor the Zero Waste Development and Expansion Act of 2017, which would create grants for municipalities to expand and implement landfill diversion programs. The bill is currently in committee.
In San Francisco, even with all that has been done since 2009, it’s unlikely the city will hit zero waste in the next 2½ years.
“Getting to zero waste by 2020? Probably not,” Rodriguez said. “We still have a lot of work to do in San Francisco. We’re not resting on our success.”
Only time will tell if Phoenix and other major cities can hit their marks.
Request a compost bin for your backyard by reaching out to cities individually.
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By examining San Francisco's mandatory composting programs, The Republic and azcentral.com continue our project to bring the problem of food waste into focus. We're explaining the problems and showing you solutions.
Most food waste happens at the consumer level, so that’s what we concentrate on.So far, we've looked at how one Arizona nonprofit rescues food otherwise bound for landfills and we've given you a kitchen guide to help you stop throwing away food and money. We also have looked at how confusion over expiration-date labeling contributes to waste and what's being done about it.
In upcoming stories, we’ll look at how confusion over expiration-date labeling contributes to waste and what's being done about it. We've examined how activists are working to change the perception of ugly fruits and vegetables, and how technology can curb waste at home.We'll examine how activists are working to change the perception of ugly fruits and vegetables, and how technology can curb waste at home.
We’ll use the strength of our newsroom to bring the stories to you.
Have a question? An example of something you've tried that has helped you waste less? Reach Food & Dining reporter Jennifer McClellan at email@example.com or 602-444-8546.
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