A Green City

“The proper use of science is not to conquer nature but to live in it” — Barry Commoner

We often hear about success stories of various cities in the field of waste management and recycling: how that city is a leader in this field, diverting 80% of its waste through reusing, recycling, and composting. This diversion rates are impressive and superior to that of every Indian major city, which raises the question: How are they diverting better than us?

A Green City in a Polluted World

Countries like Sweden and United States are showing strong commitment towards sustainability is evidenced in its leadership in waste management. The California Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989 required cities and counties to reduce, reuse, and recycle solid waste generated in the state to the maximum extent feasible before incineration or landfill disposal. In 2001, The California Integrated Waste Management Board mandated a specific target to divert 50% of waste from landfills.

San Francisco was a pioneer by both being one of the first cities to not only achieve this goal but to create local legislation setting a higher target and a deadline. In 2003, the San Francisco Commission on the Environment set the goal of zero waste by 2020. It was an ambitious goal, but many wondered if it would be achievable.

It appears the answer is yes. San Francisco reached a 75% diversion rate in 2010 and seems to be on the path to achieve its zero waste goal. Today, San Francisco claims an 80% diversion rate, an impressive figure, and superior to comparable cities worldwide.

Debate surrounded this figure and how it is calculated. To calculate it, San Francisco takes in account glass, paper, plastic, metal, organic material, and heavy construction material recycling. To some extent, this last category can explain why San Francisco’s diversion rate is so high. Indeed, in terms of tonnage, construction material diversion represents a large part of the total amount of waste diverted. Even if the recycling of heavy construction material is as important as any other type of recycling, factoring it in the diversion rate doesn’t give a fair assessment of San Franciscans’ efforts to recycle everyday.

Putting this debate aside: San Francisco was the first American city to set a zero waste goal and the first one to implement a mandatory recycling and composting ordinance using three different bins. The results are there: San Francisco did reduce the amount of waste going to landfill and recycling/composting is now part of San Franciscans’ regular routines.

Data source: CalRecycle

Siemens conducted a study in 2011, the results of which were published in its Green City Index, comparing 27 major U.S. and Canadian cities based their sustainability performance. San Francisco was named the greenest city in North America and ranked №1 in waste management.

Image source: Green City Index, Siemens

In 2015, San Francisco had a 3.7 per capita disposal rate, according to the CalRecycle system, which means that every day each San Franciscan sent an average of 3.7 pounds of waste to landfills (which is known as “non-diverted waste”). Based on data made available at CalRecycle.ca.gov, this number represents 20% of non-diverted waste claimed by the city. That means thateach San Franciscan produces an average of 18.5 pounds of (diverted and non-diverted) waste every day and 3.3 tons of waste every year.

Thus, if San Francisco wants to be the first zero waste city, reducing this amount is its next fundamental challenge. The goal could be accomplished through some combination of innovative policies, stronger economical incentives, wider educational programs, and daily efforts from San Franciscans. The challenge also represents an opportunity for startups, which will also have a local role to play in paving the way for a zero waste reality.