May 30, 2015
by Lisa Bonanate
A world with zero waste – sending nothing to landfill or incineration – sounds like a Utopian dream. But in San Francisco, it’s a dream that’s becoming a political and social reality. If you live in San Francisco, you can recycle or compost anything, even hazardous materials and construction waste. How has the City by the Bay achieved this goal and what can New York learn from its example? In a recent screening of the documentary Racing to Zero: In Pursuit of Zero Waste, New Yorkers got an eye-opening look at San Francisco’s ambitious recycling program, followed by a panel discussion that explored how the Big Apple stacks up, specifically in light of the mayor’s OneNYC plan.
After it achieved the state-mandate of 50% landfill diversion by 2000, San Francisco extended its program by setting a landfill diversion goal of 75% by 2010 and zero waste by 2020. This will achieve three sustainability goals: conservation of resources, reduced environmental impact and creation of green jobs. San Francisco has dramatically reduced the amount of waste sent to landfills. Even so, over half of what goes into the city’s landfill bins can be recycled or composted. When all waste material is separated into the correct blue (recycle) or green (compost) bins, San Francisco’s diversion rate will increase from 80 percent to 90 percent.
The San Francisco program is incredibly comprehensive. Adopting the philosophy that in nature, there is no waste, the program encompasses composting, reuse, and recycling of everything from food waste to plastics, clothing and textiles, electronics, pharmaceutical prescriptions and biohazardous waste. Food and bio-degradable waste is sent to composting farms. Plastics are separated by type and grade, then melted down and cut into small pellets that can be sold to manufacturers for reuse. Electronics are either fixed, dismantled to recover base metals, or shredded to be reused as ore. One of the key take-aways is the idea of viewing waste as a resource for creating useful products, rather than simply as trash. Glass is the perfect example of the zero waste, cradle to cradle philosophy – the same wine bottle can be melted down and remade over and over again. Clothing donated to Goodwill can be resold in Goodwill stores, sent overseas for resale or recycled into thread that can be used to manufacture new garments.
One of the most impressive aspects of San Francisco’s program is the community outreach. Residential recycling and composting bins are audited to ensure that waste is being separated properly. Residents are notified if they are sorting incorrectly and visited by an outreach team that educates them on the correct way to sort their trash.
The screening was followed by a panel discussion featuring a broad range of representatives from the NYC waste recycling community: Erich McEnroe from McEnroe Organic Farm, Kate Sinding, Senior Attorney for the NRDC, Adam Baruchowitz, Founder and CEO of Wardrobe Collections, Justin Green, Co-Founder and Director of Build It Green and Bridget Anderson, Deputy Commissioner of Recycling and Sanitation at the Department of Sanitation.
According to Anderson, New York has already implemented many of the same programs as San Francisco but needs to “go bigger”. That will require a better infrastructure for sorting trash as well as a governmental and public commitment to recycling. Tougher mandates will be required to incentivize businesses to find more sustainable ways to manufacture, package and recycle their products. Under OneNYC, the city will undertake a research project to analyze how to create incentive programs that will motivate people to adhere to recycling guidelines.
As one member of the audience pointed out, recycling programs should not be viewed as a license to over-consume. It’s important to remember the old mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”. The first and best choice is reducing or preventing waste. Clearly, if waste isn’t created in the first place, there’s no need to dispose of it. Reducing is the next best option. It involves cleaning, repairing and/or refurbishing entire items or spare parts – but involves little or no processing. And finally, recycling involves sorting and processing used items into raw materials that can be remanufactured into new products.
So where does New York stand in the race for zero waste? OneNYC sets broad goals to make New York the most sustainable big city in the world. It’s an ambitious plan that incorporates a mandate for zero waste sent to landfills by 2030. That will require an expansion of the organics program and the curbside recycling program, reduction of commercial waste by 90%, reduction of plastic bags and other non-compostable waste, expanded opportunities to reduce and reuse textiles and electronic waste, and a vision to make all NYC schools “zero waste” schools. It’s an emergent program, but one with big promise if all New Yorkers make a commitment to play their part.