San Francisco has established itself as a global leader in waste management by diverting 77% of its waste away from landfills and incinerators. The city has achieved its national distinction through a three-pronged approach: enacting strong waste reduction legislation, partnering with a like-minded waste management company to innovate new programs, and creating a culture of recycling and composting.
Merging Community Commitment and Government Action
San Francisco’s zero waste journey began with enactment of a state law in 1989, the Integrated Waste Management Act. The law required cities and counties to divert 25 percent of municipal solid waste by 1995 and 50 percent by 2000. Over the last two decades, San Francisco built upon this requirement by passing several successive ordinances that targeted additional areas of the waste stream.
In 2002, the city set an ambitious goal of achieving zero waste by 2020. Since then, legislation has pushed the city, residents, and businesses to increase their recycling rates. These waste reduction laws include an ordinance on recovery of construction and demolition debris, passed in 2006, and a requirement that restaurants use compostable or recyclable take-out containers in 2007. In 2009, after residents and businesses became accustomed to voluntary composting, San Francisco passed a landmark law that mandated recycling and composting for all residents and businesses. More recently, the city passed an ordinance requiring all retail stores to provide compostable, recycled, or recyclable bags starting October 2012. All of these laws have been timed so that the necessary infrastructure is available, and participants are given support, tools, and education.
The city of San Francisco has been extremely successful in altering the minds, habits, and culture of its citizens to accept the goal of zero waste. In the US, this is no easy feat, especially given negative perceptions related to food scraps and wet waste in general. In March 2012, the city marked its millionth ton of organic waste turned into compost. The city is well on its way to meeting the zero waste deadline of 2020.