Case Studies, Systems Thinking

Zero Waste San Francisco: A food systems approach to waste management

When San Francisco started to reimagine its waste management system, city officials knew that food waste needed to be a central pillar in their plan. It was 2003, and the American city had just released its comprehensive Environment Code. Alongside was an ambitious but exciting goal: to become zero waste by 2020.

“Zero waste is about sending nothing to landfill or incineration by using reuse, recovery, and prevention,” explains Alexa Kielty from San Francisco’s Department of the Environment (SF Environment).

By 2003, SF Environment had already diverted about 52% of the city’s waste from landfill. To achieve its 100% goal, the department knew it had to go beyond curbside waste collection. The San Francisco Zero Waste initiative is far more proactive, focusing on what staff call “the beginning of the waste cycle.”

From a food systems perspective, this means changing behaviours around food before it ends up in the trash. Some of the city’s approaches include working with growers on “ugly food” campaigns, clarifying problematic best before labelling on products, diverting bread and brewery waste for animal feed, and public education for residents and businesses alike.

At the core of these efforts is a shift from a linear waste system to a circular one. In a linear system, products are made, used, and disposed of. Or, from a food perspective, food is grown, prepared into a meal, and the organic scraps tossed in the trash.

In contrast, a circular system eliminates waste and continually reuses resources (or produces new ones all together). There are a number of ways in which this approach applies to the treatment of food waste in San Francisco.

One example is the city’s now-retired SF Greasecycle program. Launched in 2007, the program collected cooking fat, oil, and grease from more than 1,100 restaurant kitchens, selling it to manufacturers to produce valuable biodiesel. So successful was the program that it spawned the creation of several privately-owned grease collection businesses.

A leader in urban composting

Composting is another significant component of Zero Waste San Francisco.

The city has been a leader in urban composting since 1996, when it launched the first and largest commercial and residential composting collection program in the United States. Twenty years later, the city collects 650 tons of food scraps, yard trimmings, and other organic waste every day (that’s about 46 dump trucks full). Within 60 days, the organic waste is processed into high-quality compost that is sold to hundreds of organic farms and vineyards across California.

“Composting keeps materials out of landfills, it returns nutrients to farms, it reduces the production of very potent greenhouse gases, and it attracts and retains rainwater,” summarizes Robert Reed, Public Relations Manager with Recology, the private company that oversees San Francisco’s waste collection and processing.

In 2009, San Francisco took the next step and made composting and recycling mandatory for residents and businesses. Waste is sorted into three bins: recycling, compost, and trash. To encourage compliance, the city’s zero waste rate structure incentivizes recycling and composting, making it possible for people who have a larger compost bin and a smaller trash bin to save money.

City staff say it’s important this mandatory order was not introduced on a whim. Public education and the promotion of voluntary sorting systems had been in place for more than a decade. By the time San Franciscans were legally mandated to recycle and compost they were aware and prepared.

Education and public outreach efforts around composting and its connection to climate change continue today. For instance, SF Environment’s Food to Flowers: Lunchroom Composting program is an environmental education initiative that gets young kids composting in their own school cafeteria. A SF Recycles website also makes it easy for residents of all ages to learn about what can and cannot be recycled or composted.

Progress, but not yet perfect

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the city now diverts about 80% of its waste, the highest rate in any American city. Leaders from around the world have visited Recology’s facility to learn about the city’s efforts, turning the zero waste initiative into a living lab for composting and beyond.

City staff credit a series of progressive municipal governments and policies such as the legal recycling mandate as key in making the department’s efforts sustainable in the long-run. Zero waste has become a social norm among citizens and the business community.

The journey to reach 100% continues, at a time when it has never been of greater importance.