SF Apartment : May 2018
Waste Not, Want Not
by Emily Landes
Back in 2002, San Francisco set an ambitious goal: to have “zero waste” after 2020. As it stands, to reach that goal, the city would have to figure out a way to send not one piece of garbage to the landfill—or the incinerators—in the next two years. But, according to the Department of the Environment, for the last few years San Francisco has failed to meet its reduction target.
The goal for 2017 was to send only 213,680 tons of garbage to the landfill. But by July, Recology had already hauled away 236,894 tons, according to the department. In 2016, 404,022 tons ended up in the landfill, 137,000 tons more than the reduction target. While these numbers are above the annual targets, they are still down significantly from the nearly 730,000 tons that went to the landfill in 2000, which is when the city first rolled out its three-cart system: black for landfill, blue for recycling and green for compost.
Paul Giusti of Recology is the first to admit that, for a variety of reasons, the city’s laudable goal is still out of reach—for now. But he feels that just striving for “zero waste” has helped the city considerably. “While we may not be at zero waste at 2020, San Francisco is farther along than any other city in the United States,” he said. “The timeline is less important than setting the goal.”
As for some of the reasons behind the delay? Giusti points to continued economic, population and construction growth in the city since the “zero waste” vision was announced 15 years ago, as well as a sea change in the way people purchase. “Back then, people didn’t shop online. How could you ever have taken something like that into account?” he asked.
The huge increase in cardboard waste from deliveries is part of the reason the recycling and waste management company recently announced the roll out of a new initiative that will automatically resize customers’ bins—doubling the size of the blue recycling bins and halving the size of the black landfill bin. (Green compost bins will remain the same.) A pilot program proved successful in the Sunset and it should take about two years to change out bins throughout the city. Customers will also have the option to keep their old bins.
These new bins will also come with prominent stickers that explain what can go into each container. This clarification is even more important now that Recology has invested $14 million in new technology that allows for even more everyday household items to be recycled. Juice boxes, milk cartons, soup containers, plastic wrap, and coffee cups and lids are among the new items that can now go into the blue bins.
Fabrics can now be recycled as well, but Giusti says the company would prefer that usable clothing still be donated to organizations like Goodwill and the Salvation Army. Stained or worn out items, however, should now be put inside a plastic bag and recycled in the blue bin. These items end up being “downcycled” into carpeting and insulation, said Giusti.
In addition to the technological improvements, Recology also added a new manual sorting line, which Giusti said is the longest in North America. “With the programs we have today, we could get to about 90 percent recycling,” he said.
Education and Ease
The programs are there, as well as the markets looking to buy these valuable recyclables. (Giusti said that 10 percent of Recology’s revenue comes from the sale of recyclables.) Yet many, even in our environmentally conscious city, still aren’t recycling. “Almost 80 percent of what’s going in the black bin can be recycled,” Giusti said, adding that very few items, such as kitty litter or used diapers, belong in the black bin.
The apartment industry is key to reducing the amount of easily recyclable items that are currently being sent to the landfill. “One of the hardest sectors to crack is multifamily apartments,” Giusti said. “They are doing okay, but they are not participating to the extent single-family and commercial properties are.”
Giusti pointed to several key reasons why tenants are less likely to recycle, including a difficulty in effectively communicating about recycling programs due to the transitory nature of renting and the lack of financial incentives to recycle since tenants do not typically pay for garbage collection. That’s why Recology and SFAA have been working together for many years to both educate tenants on recycling and make it easier for them as well.
Recology comes to speak at SFAA board meetings, member meetings and trade shows. It offers resources like free sorting guides and signage (easily downloaded from recology.com) to owners. It will also happily send representatives out to talk at tenant meetings or to janitorial staff. Plus, Recology worked directly with SFAA to create lease language that makes recycling a mandatory action for tenants.
Giusti says this partnership has led to huge changes, and cost-savings, in buildings where owners have been proactive in utilizing all the resources Recology has to offer. “More education and more signage have made a big difference,” he said. As an example, he pointed to Cathedral Hill, whose building manager put a recycling station on every floor in high-traffic areas to make it easier for tenants to participate. “She figured out it was a great way to save money as well as provide services her tenants were looking for,” he said. “She was able to save money by maximizing recycling.”
This “recycling discount” for decreasing black bin size is even more important since Recology raised its rates nearly 14 percent across all property types in the city. A three-unit building, for example, will now pay just under $90 a month for a 32-gallon green bin, 32-gallon black bin and 64-gallon blue bin. Giusti explained that the rate increase was necessary because of increases in landfill costs, a new five-year bargaining agreement with Recology employees, regulatory changes at the state level, and investments in technology that will hopefully make “zero waste” a reality—maybe not by 2020, but in the not-too-distant future.
In fact, Giusti said the recycling and waste management company has been “reinvigorated” by the fast-approaching 2020 date. It is not only rolling out the new bins and dramatically increasing what can be recycled, but also looking at ways to get that last 10 percent out of the waste stream. He said the company is examining emerging technology like anaerobic digestion, which would turn items like medical waste into methane gas that could be captured and sold. They are also testing another process that “dewaters” otherwise recyclable material in the black carts so that salvageable items can be dried and reused.
Of course, the company wouldn’t need to utilize this expensive technology if people just put their items in the right bins to begin with. It can be flummoxing to see people continue to put obviously recyclable items like paper and cardboard in the black bins to be sent to the landfill, but Giusti says his company is up for the challenge of educating and motivating the city’s citizens to make “zero waste” more than just a lofty goal.
“We’ve come so far and we’ve been so successful, it just continues to motivate us,” he said. “If we all try and put our minds to it, I think it’s achievable.”
Emily Landes is the interim editor of SF Apartment Magazine.