Recycling lessons from San Francisco

San Francisco isn’t just a world champion in major league baseball. The City by the Bay’s recycling program is also world class.

San Francisco has tripled its recycling rate since 1996 to about 78 percent. It’s one of the highest recycling rates in the nation and light years ahead of Buffalo’s, which fluctuates in the 12 to 16 percent range.

How did San Francisco do it?

Officials constantly educate the public and businesses, offer almost two dozen different recycling programs that are customized for each neighborhood district, and enforce the mandates in a way that could result in someone’s trash not getting picked up.

Robert Reed, public relations manager for Recology Sunset Scavenger in San Francisco, said the city is routinely recognized as one of the greenest cities in the country. Recology is an employee-owned company that services the city for compost and recycling.

Reed said San Francisco has 20 separate and distinct recycling programs that fit the land use of neighborhoods. For example, in the Financial District, the focus is on paper recycling. In the Fisherman’s Wharf District, the focus is in composting food and restaurant scraps. Compost is then delivered to a local farm or vineyard to grow plants that further reduce carbon out of the atmosphere, he said.

By contract, Buffalo does not manage a food scraps recycling program. Busy coffee shops like the Tim Horton’s in the Key Center and Fountain Plaza and the Dunkin’ Donuts on West Chippewa Street toss their coffee grinds in the garbage, as do most restaurants with their food scraps.

“We’ve brought a combination of solutions to the challenge,” Reed said. “One of them is the San Francisco Board of Supervisors set a goal of getting to zero waste by 2020.

“We have gotten together with the city and did some analysis of the different waste streams and we jointly developed a slate of recycling programs. There is tremendous momentum here and recycling is a big part of the culture.”

Friday Apaliski, outreach coordinator for the San Francisco’s Department of the Environment, said the 100-employee agency is largely funded from fees that residents and businesses pay in their public waste bills. The city contracts with Recology for its recycling, compost and waste pickups.

“We push them very hard toward our goal to zero waste,” she said. “We work with Recology to put together these programs that will help us get there.”

To create a successful recycling program, Apaliski said localities need to make it easy for businesses and residents. Effective strategies include incentives, education programs and enforcement of recycling mandates.

San Francisco has three bins: one each for recyclables, compost and trash. Residents are charged based on the amount that goes into the trash bins only, which incentivizes them to recycle. She said there are no limits to the number of bins provided residents.

“The less you put in the black bin the less you pay,” Apaliski said of the recycle container.

In Buffalo, customers can choose among three sizes of garbage totes, with the largest being the most expensive. Critics say that the price difference between the smallest garbage tote and the largest—about a $25 annual savings—is too small to be a real incentive for customers.

The 2010 San Francisco law that mandates all businesses and residents to recycle required a two-year educational push. Apaliski said staff members went to every business and residence to make sure they were in compliance with the law, had enough bins and understood the regulations.

“We literally visited every resident and every business in two years,” she said.

Staff also monitor garbage bins and tag them when they notice items not being recycled or are placed in the wrong bin. The next day, staff  visits the business or residence to see if they need more information or help them to better understand the mandates.

The city is now beginning enforcement efforts by issuing warnings that their waste will not be picked up if problems continue.

“We haven’t gotten to the fining part yet. We can do it, but our focus is on education and we want to help people get to the right place first,” Apaliski said.

“You need carrots and sticks. But education is a huge part of it. We have been working at this for quite some time. It is a work in progress. We are happy to share our best practices with other municipalities.”

This concludes our three-part series.

Last Thursday: Low recycling rates for Buffalo recycling program 
Last Friday:  Buffalo schools fail at recycling