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Residents still resist recycling

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City officials say more than half of the hundreds of thousands of tons of waste going into landfill could instead be recycled or composted. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

San Francisco won’t hit its 2020 goal of no longer sending waste to the landfill in part because some people just can’t be bothered to sort their trash.

Residents are supposed to divide their trash into three buckets, with compost in green bins, recyclables in blue bins and the items that can’t be composted or recycled in the black bin.

But many are not. In fact, more than half of the hundreds of thousands of tons of waste going into city landfill could instead be recycled or composted, said Debbie Raphael, director of the Department of the Environment, on Wednesday during a hearing at the Board of Supervisors Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee.

“Sixty percent of what is going to landfill has a place — it has a place in the blue bin, it has a place in the green bin,” Raphael said.

And it’s not that residents are confused about which bin to use.

Raphael said a survey by the department showed people knew why they should recycle and how, but didn’t do it because “it’s too much trouble, it’s just too much work.”

“Here, we have a system with the ultimate convenience. Everybody’s got the bins. We have signs to show you. We have outreach campaigns. And they still don’t want to do it because it is still not convenient enough” Raphael said. “Whatever that culture of convenience is here, we’re up against it in a big way.”

Two overflowing bins for trash and compostable items sit in an alley on Wednesday, May 23, 2018. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Supervisor Ahsha Safai called for the hearing following a report by the San Francisco Examiner that The City was not within reach of hitting its zero waste goal by 2020, which was established in 2003, and that the amount of waste going to the landfill was no longer decreasing, but actually increasing. Recycling became mandatory in 2009.

In 2000, San Francisco sent 872,731 tons of waste to the landfill. That reached a low of 428,048 tons in 2012 but has increased each year since then, reaching 580,992 tons in 2016.

Safai emphasized during the hearing that whatever is placed in the black bins is not sorted by Recology, The City’s trash hauler, recycler and landfill operator. That means if a banana peel is tossed into the black bin and not the green bin it will end up in the landfill.

“Why don’t you take that black stream, put it on a conveyor belt and start picking out the stuff, the banana peel?” Safai asked.

John Porter, a Recology representative, said they have experimented with different technology to sort black bin trash, but didn’t find it fruitful.

Porter said when the items are mixed “it ruins those commodities. They no longer have value. And they cannot be recycled. The material will get rejected. That material gets ruined. You throw it in the trash with your dog waste, your animal waste, your baby diapers — it’s ruined.”

“There has to be non-ruined stuff,” Safai said.

Supervisor Hillary Ronen suggested The City ramp up enforcement. “It just seems like we should have been in the enforcement compliance phase a while ago,” Ronen said. “It’s pretty outrageous that 60 percent of what’s going to the landfill is still recycling and compost in San Francisco in 2018 after all of the work that both Recology and the Department of the Environment has been doing and I think it’s time to step it up.”

She added, “We just need a behavioral change.”

To help get to zero-waste, Recology and The City recently began rolling out smaller black bins and larger recyclable bins and the company has improved its recycling processing plant.

Another 25 percent of the tonnage going to the landfill is from construction and debris, but some of this could also be processed and reused, such as metals, wood and drywall.

Raphael said that a 2006 law requires the construction and debris waste to be sent to a city-registered facility for proper sorting, but that’s not always happening. “There are some bad actors out there at construction and demolition sites that aren’t sending their things to those facilities. They are sending them straight to landfill,” Raphael said, adding that they have had trouble figuring out who they are to be able to penalize them.

Safai told the Examiner he intends to introduce legislation in the coming weeks to improve the zero-waste effort.

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