San Francisco's Zero Waste Successes

San Francisco's Zero Waste Successes
The "Pit" in San Francisco © Walter Parenteau

Approaching zero-waste is a matter of changing the way our culture thinks about use and reuse.  It's not an impossible task, and San Francisco is leading the march to establish a feasible means of enacting public policy, structuring programs and educating the public on what it means to be "zero-waste".  With a goal set for 2020, SF hopes to keep 100% of its waste out of landfills.  Mayor Ed Lee estimates that the leading waste management company "Recology" is diverting nearly 80% of trash from landfills to be recycled or turned into compost.  This begins with a public policy that sets a standard and gains traction as citizens embrace the goals of the city.  Support programs reinforce these guidelines that eventually become habits and a cultural response to treating our environment.

Read on after the break for more on San Francisco's road to "zero-waste".

Since 1989, San Francisco has engaged in its "zero waste journey" by enacting waste management laws and city ordinances that incrementally introduced stricter requirements for waste management. Begining with a policy that required counties to divert 25% of their waste away from landfills by 1995 and raising them to 50% by 2000. The zero-waste goal was introduced in 2002 to be acheived in 2020. Several measures, simple in their enactment, such as requiring restaurants to use recyclable or compostable take-out containers, have been introduced over the past few years.

While the ordinances can go a long way, education and support tools ensure that citizens understand the measures and can comply with what they are intended to do and go on to make decisions that contribute to the overall goals of the city. Understanding the correlation between a consumer's purchasing power and the waste materials that end up in landfills and contribute to the degradation of ecosystems and air quality is powerful in determining the success of the policies. A proactive government and committed citizen base make the goal achievable. The policy also mandates that auditors check the content of residents' garbage to ensure proper sorting. According to "The News Hour" coverage by Spencer Michels for PBS auditors follow-up on non-compliant residents to explain the distinctions between trash, recyclable and compostable materials.

Waste Management Bins from Recology © Rocketlass

The notion of "zero-waste" can keep trash out of landfills, but a really effective strategy would be enacting programs that don't just target composting and recycling, but aim for the root of the problem, which includes packaging and manufacturing of goods that enter the market that are disposable. Reduction of waste and reuse of materials need to be included in this consideration as well. How products are manufactured and how they are marketed is equally as important important to developing a culture around reducing waste. San Francisco's own website totes a motto of "Preventing Waste Before it Happens" with ordinances that introduce a bag charge for plastic bags in grocery stores and restaurants and creating incentives for produces to manufacture goods that are more durable and easier to recycle.

An all around policy that addresses recycling, composting, reusing and reducing waste can demonstrate communities can shift their priorities to address environmental issues that have significant affects on our health and land use.  San Francisco demonstrates how reinforcing habits through policies can bring significant changes to how cities deal with environmental concerns.

Read more on San Francisco's policies at

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Cite: Irina Vinnitskaya. "San Francisco's Zero Waste Successes" 21 Feb 2013. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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