Global Recycling Day: An Excerpt from “Solved” by David Miller

Today is Global Recycling Day, an occasion marked every year on March 18 to create awareness around the globe about the rapid pace at which our natural resources are being used. Did you know that every year, the Earth yields billions of tons of natural resources and at some point, in the not too distant future, it will run out? If our planet is going to survive the climate crisis, we need to act rapidly. This is the premise of David Miller’s book Solved: How the World’s Great Cities Are Fixing the Climate Crisis, which is a summons to every city to make small but significant changes that can drastically reduce our carbon footprint. In this post, we share an excerpt from chapter seven of the book on waste and look at San Francisco’s efforts to have net-zero emissions by 2050.

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Excerpt from Chapter 7: Waste

The statistics on the amount of waste we produce are truly mind-boggling. The electronic revolution alone has produced incredible quantities of waste – according to The World Counts, forty million tons of e-waste per year, The equivalent of throwing away eight hundred laptops per second. And that’s just the beginning. We throw away 4.5 trillion cigarette butts, 25 billion Styrofoam coffee cups – in the US alone. What’s more, 480 billion plastic bottles of water are sold each year, and “fast fashion” – clothes designed to be worn only a few times and then discarded – has developed as a trend the past few years. Then there are plastic bags. Straws. And much, much more. We live in a society that produces staggering amounts of waste, all of which has to be disposed of somewhere.

It wasn’t always this way. In the English village where I grew up in the 1960s, almost nothing was thrown away, because in the post-war economy people had very little money and so were careful to fix what was broken. If they could not fix it, a local service (the rag-and-bone man) would buy it and fix it for resale. Products were built to last – the classic example is the telephone. When telephone companies were owned by the government, or were privately owned but publicly regulated, they typically owned the telephones and leased them to their customers. In this context, it made economic sense to build telephones to last – according to one article, for up to twenty-five years. Today, across the entire range of things people buy, it is very different. Whether this is caused by built-in obsolescence (deliberately making products not to last so that we have to buy new ones relatively quickly) or a change in attitudes can be debated, but the result is clear – ever-increasing mountains of waste. Just look at the iPhone: in the thirteen years since it was introduced, there have been eleven models. And all of the used phones need to be disposed. The waste keeps piling up.

San Francisco Takes the Lead

San Francisco is a city with steep hills, a vibrant waterfront, and a strong and growing economy. Like other cities mentioned in this book, San Francisco has a clear plan to have net-zero emissions by 2050. It has already made impressive gains. The city’s first climate-action plan was released in 2004 under the leadership of then mayor Gavin Newsom (although work began under the previous mayor, Willie Brown). At that time, it was one of the first community climate-action plans in the United States. By 2017, San Francisco had surpassed its original goals: emission reductions had exceeded the intermediate target, at 36 per cent below 1990 levels. This was despite a large increase in population and a huge increase in GDP. (San Francisco has clearly demonstrated that carbon emissions can be dissociated from GDP and population growth.) As part of this work, San Francisco has become a world leader in waste management.

Waste represented 6 per cent of the city’s total emissions in 2017, and the goal is to reduce that number to zero – meaning 100 per cent diversion of discarded materials to recycling and composting. Recent changes to global recycling systems may extend the time it takes to reach that goal, but San Francisco’s strategy has been so successful that it is being widely adopted elsewhere.

There were multiple motivations for the zero-waste program: to conserve resources, to reduce waste’s environmental impact, to create jobs, to save money (waste disposal is a significant drain on a city’s resources), and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. San Francisco also made the case that going to zero waste would improve the air quality from energy conservation and reduced manufacturing, and that their approach to waste could potentially mean the creation of community waste/recycling facilities and the associated employment.

San Francisco has an unusual history for waste collection and processing. In 1932, a refuse ordinance was passed that created permit areas where waste collection companies could get exclusive rights for waste collection. The bylaw gave the city authority to set the rates for waste collection. Over time, one company, now named Recology, bought all the permits in the city and became the city’s sole waste collector.

Recology is 100 per cent employee owned and cooperates with the city in its ambitious goals for waste management. It collects and processes all of San Francisco’s waste, and is an interesting example of a business working with a city to accomplish important public policy goals. (Note: Concerns about Recology’s monopoly led to a citywide referendum in 2012 on a proposition to separate waste collection into multiple competitive bid contracts. The proposition was defeated, and Recology continues to be San Francisco’s sole operator for solid waste collection and processing.)

San Francisco and Recology are taking a simple approach in working toward zero waste, one that is considered state of the art by most progressive city governments. In order of priority, the first goal is waste prevention, then reducing and reusing waste. What remains is targeted for recycling and composting.

To prevent waste generation, the city has instituted several bans on packaging. Over time, some forms of plastic bags, takeout containers, water bottles, and other single-use packaging have been banned.

In 2007, large grocery stores and retailers were prohibited from using single-use plastic bags. Only certified compostable plastic bags or paper bags with post-consumer content were allowed as checkout bags, and these had to be sold, not given away. Reusable bags were also encouraged, but to qualify for use by a retailer, these had to be washable and able to withstand more than 125 uses. By 2013, this ordinance applied to all retail stores and food establishments. It is estimated that San Francisco has reduced its disposable checkout-bag usage by 70 to 90 per cent as a consequence of this city law. Plastic bags are a common source of litter, a common contaminant in recycling and composting systems, and take time to break down in landfills. More than seventy-five other cities and counties in California have followed San Francisco’s lead in banning plastic bags.

The city has also led efforts to hold producers of waste responsible for it – rather than the purchasers of their product. In 2006, it passed the Extended Producer Responsibility Resolution to lobby for state legislation to increase producer responsibility for a product’s full lifecycle. The city believes in creating incentives for product redesign to minimize waste, as well as measures to make producers and distributors responsible for product recycling and disposal. San Francisco’s efforts particularly target producers of hazardous waste. The net effect is to shift the cost of recycling and disposal away from municipalities toward the producers and distributors of the materials – giving them an economic incentive to avoid creating the waste in the first place.

One successful example of extended producer responsibility is the 2015 Safe Drug Disposal Stewardship Ordinance. With this city law, drug manufacturers are required to provide San Francisco residents with a safe and convenient way to dispose of their unwanted prescription and over-the-counter medication. The goal was to prevent pharmaceutical products from polluting aquatic ecosystems, to help combat prescription drug abuse, and to address a category of products that are not served by conventional waste collection. More than forty-four medicine-collection kiosks are located throughout the city where residents can drop off unwanted medications. Alternatively, prepaid mail-back envelopes are available. In 2018, a total of 23,474 pounds (10,648 kilograms) of medicines were collected as a result of this ordinance.

In 2009, San Francisco introduced a mandatory recycling and composting program that built on the food-waste composting program that’s been operational since the 1990s. Residents are required to separate their waste into three bins: recycling (blue bin), compostable waste (green bin), and trash (black bin). Note that unlike programs in many other cities, separating waste is a requirement. When waste is incorrectly sorted, educational material is provided to residents in a variety of languages. However, repeat offenders can be fined.

To encourage greater separation of waste, the size of the black trash bin is shrinking, while the size of the recycling and compost bins remains large. Residents who are unable to fit their trash into the smaller black bins must pay extra to use a larger one, and they may be subject to a waste audit. Waste audits are also performed regularly at sites that consistently generate large volumes of waste. (In some cities, this can be controversial, particularly at inception, but in San Francisco, Toronto, and elsewhere the practice has become widely accepted.) The compost program is highly successful and effective in reducing methane emissions and therefore minimizing the impact on climate change. Compost is used to fertilize California vineyards, and the city has facilities that use anaerobic digestion of compostable products to generate biogas for collection fleets and buildings.

Apartment buildings remain a significant challenge in San Francisco, as in all cities. More than half of San Francisco’s residents live in apartment buildings, the majority of which are outfitted with only one garbage chute (except for newer buildings, which have multiple waste chutes for separated collection). Typically, in the older buildings, trash is deposited in the chute, but recyclables and compost must be carried down to basement-storage areas, a disincentive to recycling and composting. As it is very expensive to retrofit buildings to have a multi-chute system, this practice tends to be the norm.

To address this challenge, San Francisco plans to improve the extraction of recyclables and compost from the collected waste stream from multi-residential buildings, develop the market for recyclables and compost, and introduce more material bans.

The city also provides oversight and carries out research and outreach activities. City departments must have well-designed recycling, composting, and trash areas, and events organized or authorized by the city require event organizers to attend zero-waste training and offer recycling and composting. The city has banned the sale and distribution of plastic water bottles on city property and has increased the availability of drinking water in public spaces.

San Francisco is advanced in dealing with construction waste. Current rules require a minimum of 65 per cent of construction, demolition, and remodeling waste material to be diverted from landfill, and large new commercial and residential buildings must divert a minimum of 75 per cent of construction waste and meet LEED Materials and Resources credit 2 requirements (targets for recovering, reusing, recycling materials). This is part of a significant series of measures, some internal – demonstrating leadership and what’s possible – and some external.

Internally, the city has an active plan to address the reduction of waste and the purchase of more sustainable products. The approved product list emphasizes recycled content – for example, 100 per cent post-consumer-content recycled paper. City departments must appoint a recycling coordinator, assess their waste, submit a resource-conservation plan, submit an annual recycling survey, and report on solid-waste diversion. They are required to reuse office furniture, computers, and supplies using a virtual-warehouse exchange system, and even print two-sided on paper.

The city has taken the lessons it’s learned and worked to assist residents and businesses. It created an online database of local businesses that divert 75 per cent or more of their waste; it offers waste audits and consultations to businesses; has programs for pickup of specialized, toxic, or large waste items (such as scrap metal, electronics, motor oil, batteries, fluorescent bulbs); and has a team (“the Environment Now” team) that conducts extensive outreach and education for residents and businesses, and checks curbside bins for compliance.

The city is planning to add a zero-waste facility to improve processing efficiencies and recover compostable and recyclable goods that have not been source separated. To assist in moving toward zero waste, the city is considering the introduction of more material bans and waste-prevention campaigns, and continues to encourage producer-responsibility initiatives, some of which are also being considered by the State Government of California.

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Click here to read the full chapter from Solved: How the World’s Great Cities Are Fixing the Climate Crisis.