The world has developed immensely, as evident from the rising standards of living and appreciating consumption patterns of an average person. However, this development has been achieved at a price, and it’s a heavy price! The industrialization and technological advancement enabling such fast-paced growth in the quality of human lives have left an inadvertent and adverse impact on our environment.  We are left with mountainous volumes of wastes, way beyond what modern governments and municipal authorities can handle. Garbage disposal or Waste management has become a crippling problem for cities across the world today. 

Do you know how much waste an average American produces each day?

As per data provided by the EPA, the average American produces about 4.4 pounds of waste every day, of which only 1.5 pounds is composted or recycled and the rest is diverted to landfills.


Waste Disposal in Bay Area

San Francisco, however, has a different story.  

The city diverts about 80 percent of its waste from landfills; which is more than 1.5 million tons, annually. 

Sounds easy, but it is not!

How has San Francisco handled its garbage disposal problem? What solution has the city devised to tackle trash collection and removal in the bay area?

Rigorous policies and continuous innovative initiatives for recycling, composting, and reducing garbage production at source helped the city combat its garbage disposal problem.


Mandatory Recycling and Composting Law

In 2009, San Francisco passed the Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance that made recycling and composting mandatory for businesses and residences alike. This law was the first of its kind in the United States that requires everyone living in San Francisco to separate the garbage produced by them at source, i.e. separation of recyclable waste, compostable waste, and landfill waste.


Zero Waste Goal 

In 2003, San Francisco set its aims to become a Zero Waste city and fixed 2020 as the deadline to achieve this goal. Zero Waste means no garbage remains, either for landfills or for burning. This can only be achieved through recycling, composting, reclaiming, and reducing waste production.


The Fantastic Three program

To deal with the garbage disposal problem in the Bay area, San Francisco implemented a citywide residential and commercial trash collection program, the “Fantastic Three”.

The Fantastic Three program is an easy-to-use three-bin waste collection system that requires each resident and business in the city to necessarily use three bins: 

  • Blue bin for recyclable waste
  • Green bin for compostable waste
  • Black bin for remaining trash

Image via sfenvironment


Banning Single-Use Plastic Checkout Bag

Another major action for trash removal in the San Francisco bay area was the banning of single-use plastic checkout bags and Styrofoam. This step not just ensured waste management but was also used to drive environment-friendly behavior in the bay area.


Ordinance for Reduction of Food Service Waste  

The Food Service Waste Reduction Ordinance banned the use of polystyrene ware for prepared food and service in San Francisco. The ordinance requires all food vendors and restaurants in the city to use only such disposable containers that can be composted or recycled. This would be some contribution on the part of businesses and consumers to reach San Francisco’s zero waste target by 2020. Food service ware made from polystyrene foam cannot be recycled, renewed, bio-degraded. Such waste material has to be diverted to landfills, streams, or the ocean. San Francisco passed this ordinance with an aim to reduce non-recyclable waste generated from polystyrene food service ware and encourage businesses and consumers to go eco-friendly. All restaurants, delis, fast food service joints, events and fair organizers, food trucks, and all other kinds of food facilitators and contractors selling prepared food in San Francisco have to comply with the law.


Exclusive Partnership with Recology

Much of San Francisco’s success with waste management is attributed to its private partnership with Recology, its sole service partner. This exclusive partnership with one company has lessened the administrative burden and fostered long term collaboration on city-wide programs. Working with one company removes all complexities and administrative glitches that come with multiple competing waste collection companies as seen in other cities, for example, New York. 

New York manages its waste disposal through a private system for commercial waste, where hundreds of trash collection agencies function together. This renders the local government little scope for collaboration while launching citywide programs.


Setting Trash Collection rates

To drive behavior change towards garbage disposal, San Francisco fixed higher trash collection rates as compared to recycling and composting rates. More recently, standard residential bin sizes provided a further behavioral bump. Recology’s standard services allow a 64-gallon blue bin for recycling, a 32-gallon green bin for composting, and a 16-gallon black bin for landfill-bound trash. Trash collection rates change with change in the bin sizes, with higher charges for surpassing the black trash bin size. Residents are encouraged to accommodate more recyclable material and reduce landfill material.

Even businesses are charged as per the volume of trash they produce. Discounts are offered for using more green and blue bins, and a penalty is imposed when recyclables or compostables are diverted to trash.

Focus is on educating people to be more willing to accommodate their garbage producing habits, to make the zero-waste concept work.


Large scale recycling and composting operations

The city transports all its recyclable wastes to the Recycle Center, a 200,000-square foot warehouse where 40 – 45 tons of waste matter are processed every hour.

There is a team of 14 people working behind the scene with technologically optimized screens, magnetic sensors, and optical sorters. They operate on a large scale to remove contaminated matter and pull apart paper, scrap metals, and other plastics from the collected debris. After separation and singling out similar materials, they are packaged and shipped out to various recycling centers within and outside the city.

The city’s composting operations are carried out at Jepson Prairie Organics in Vacaville, situated approximately 60 miles northeast of San Francisco. Here, all food scraps and yard’s waste are weighed, milled, and mixed to form compost. The nutrient-rich compost produced thereafter is sold as fertilizer to winegrowers in wine country and nut farmers in the Central Valley.

The entire waste disposal system in San Francisco costs about $300 million per year, and surprisingly, the authorities are able to sponsor this whole program solely through trash collection fees, which are comparable to that of the average charges for the Bay Area.


The Road Ahead

The road to zero waste is still not very close. San Francisco is struggling with about half a million tons of waste being diverted to its landfill every year.

The recycling crisis in the Bay area has further sparked after China amended its policies regarding the import of recycling matter from other countries. The Bay Area cities are looking for new takers of their recyclable exports while promoting responsible behavior domestically from its residents.


Thought for You

The garbage Disposal problem in the Bay area involves more than what it seems. There is a need to spread awareness and education about eco-friendly consumer behavior to combat climate change. The real deal is to inspire people to simply stop using plastic and invest more in green bins. 

Composting is one big way that the Bay area is tackling its waste disposal problem.

And this is a big carbon-cutting opportunity.

If all the cities in California followed suit through composting, we could have so much compost so as to pull many more million tons of carbon out of the atmosphere every year.