San Francisco must toss out its throw-away culture

Like a lot of San Franciscans, Andrew Perlman cares about the environment. A city resident since 1983, he regularly shops at the farmers market, supports local businesses, composts and recycles. But when I asked Perlman whether he thought San Francisco could meet its goal to send zero waste to landfills by 2020, he paused.

“It’s possible,” he told me. “But it’s a tremendous amount of work.”

After spending a year trying, and failing, to reach zero waste myself, I believe Perlman is right. San Franciscans have achieved the monumental task of lowering climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions while our population and economy grow. But trashing the black bin is hard. In fact, as the San Francisco Examiner previously reported, we’re increasing the amount we landfill.

This could change in 2018, though. San Francisco is lucky to have access to state-of-the-art recycling and composting infrastructure. But participating in The City’s program requires time, effort and know-how. If city leaders and businesses do more to reduce our need to use the black, blue and green bins, they could make zero waste both possible and easier.

In October, Recology, The City’s waste provider, announced a significant expansion to its capabilities: In addition to bottles, cans, paper and cardboard, it can now process soft plastics and aseptic containers, like juice boxes and soup cartons. Theoretically, this should make it easier for San Franciscans to avoid the black bin.

“Recology has invested in infrastructure, local labor and innovation to expand the range of materials we can recycle,” said Paul Giusti, Community and Government Affairs Manager at Recology. “It’s a serious investment in The City’s continuing commitment to achieve zero waste and our commitment to changing our industry into resource recovery.”

But participating in the new program can be confusing and burdensome. Used paper coffee and soup cups now go in the blue bin, not the green. To recycle soft plastics, like shrink wrap, bubble wrap and plastic bread bags, San Franciscans must bundle them in a clear plastic bag no larger than a soccer ball and tie it up with a knot. Containers should be empty, and everything should be clean and dry.

Department of Environment employees speak with the manager at Judahlicious in the Sunset as part of a joint outreach effort between The City and Recology. (Robyn Purchia/Special to S.F. Examiner)

To help San Franciscans understand these rules and encourage participation, The City and Recology have launched a huge outreach effort. Last month, I went door to door with Department of Environment employees as they answered questions, passed out information and stressed the importance of recycling and composting to public health and the planet.

But wouldn’t it be easier to avoid the need to recycle and compost? Sorting sucks. It’s time-consuming and burdensome. The City already struggles to encourage folks to put food scraps in the green bin. Now, it’s also asking people to take extra steps to landfill one juice box and piece of shrink wrap.

Instead of thinking about the bin, The City needs more policies and services to fight our throw-away culture. In my attempt to reach zero waste, I had to fight off plastic straws, disposable coffee cups, conference swag and the lure of Amazon, Instacart and Postmates. San Francisco businesses have caught on that we care about climate change and organic, GMO-free food, but they haven’t grasped our desire for less trash. They insist on wasting money on more waste.

Food delivery services are a prime culprit; most absolutely refuse to make getting extra sauces, plastic utensils, napkins and straws a choice. Indicating on the order and contacting the delivery person is not enough. It’s simply the culture to toss junk in your bag that you must toss directly in the bin.

“Although you did not request napkins and silverware, as a courtesy, I am glad your Postmate brought some for you just in case!” Terrica B. from Postmates’ support team told me after I complained about receiving garbage I asked to avoid.

Providing more garbage to sort is not a courtesy. Restaurants and apps should only provide straws, plastic utensils and extra sauces on request. Butchers shouldn’t wrap their meat in plastic and paper unless we ask. Coffee shops should always put our hot drinks in mugs unless we tell them we need it to go. We need more grocery stores selling package-free goods. We’d like stores to fix our small electronics when they break.

If businesses remain unwilling to stop wasting money on trash we don’t need or want, city leaders should enact more policies, like the plastic bag ban. With additional support, zero waste may be both possible and easy.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at

Greg Andersen

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Greg Andersen

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