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SF fails to meet annual reduction targets to reach zero waste to landfill by 2020

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A recology employee stands near the beginning stage of the facility’s newly upgraded recycling system at Recology’s Recycle Central on Pier 96. (Jessica Christian/2016 S.F. Examiner)
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In a bid to reach its goal of sending no more waste to the landfill after 2020, San Francisco is shrinking trash bins by half while doubling the size of bins for recyclables — touted as the biggest change in The City’s recycling program in more than a decade.

But the San Francisco Examiner has learned the change comes after The City and trash-hauler Recology failed to hit the reduction targets for the hundreds of thousands of tons of trash going to the landfill each year. In fact, the amount of trash going to the landfill is on the rise.

The annual landfill reduction targets were established to ensure San Francisco becomes a zero-waste city come 2021. That was the vision announced back in 2002.

But that goal, the data suggests, may no longer be in reach.

In 2015, The City sought to reduce garbage hauled to the landfill to 320,520 tons, but the actual amount of San Francisco trash that ended up in the landfill was 386,854 tons, according to data provided to the Examiner by the Department of the Environment.

In 2016, the goal was to send 267,100 tons of garbage to the landfill. Instead, 404,022 tons ended up in the landfill — 137,000 tons more than the reduction target.

This year, San Francisco has already failed to meet the reduction target of only sending 213,680 tons of garbage to the landfill. As of July, Recology has already hauled 236,894 tons of garbage to the landfill.

The amount of garbage San Francisco dumps into the landfill is supposed to decline to 53,420 tons in 2020, followed by zero tons in subsequent years.

But San Francisco doesn’t appear on track to hit that environmental milestone.

“We maintain our commitment to zero waste, but we are realistic about the challenges,” Department of the Environment spokesperson Peter Gallotta said.

“Conditions have changed significantly since 2000, when The City was in the midst of the first dot-com bubble,” Gallotta said. “We have adapted and expanded programs, facilities and educational outreach to address shifting consumer behaviors, population growth, more employees, and the current construction and economic boom.”

He noted that, in 2000, when The City first launched the three bin system — black bins for landfill waste, blue bins for recyclables and green bins for compostable items — the amount of waste that went to the landfill was 729,717 tons.

The annual reduction targets are included in the controversial 2015 landfill agreement struck between The City and Recology, which has a trash hauling monopoly in San Francisco. In fact, the landfill was the last remaining piece of the refuse industry Recology didn’t control. That changed in 2015 when Recology beat out Alameda County’s Waste Management, which previously held the landfill agreement and sued over losing the contract.

The annual reduction targets in the contract are based on the 373,940 tons of garbage produced in San Francisco and trucked to the landfill in 2014. The contract contemplates imposing “certain fees on waste generators” to help The City achieve “disposal targets and other diversion and environmental goals.”

The announcement by The City and Recology on Oct. 5 about the resizing of the bins is an initiative meant to improve the zero-waste effort.

The size of the black bins, which is for waste that isn’t recyclable and ends up in the landfill, will shrink by 50 percent, from 32 gallons to 16 gallons. At the same time, the blue bins, where recyclables go, are being doubled in size from 32 gallons to 64 gallons.

Consumers were also told that additional items can start going into the blue bins, like coffee cups and linens like jeans, if bagged in plastic bags.

Recology is swapping out the old bins with the new-size bins, which come with other new sticker labels informing people what goes in each bin. The effort has begun in the Sunset and will next start in the Richmond on Nov. 5. To change all the bins throughout The City will take two years. People will have the option to stick with their old bins.

About 75 percent are taking the new-sized bins, and there’s already a noticeable difference, Paul Giusti, Recology’s regional government and community affairs manager, told the Commission on the Environment last week.

“It’s running about a 10 percent decrease in the amount of trash as we roll out each route and a corresponding increase in recycling and composting,” Guisti said.

Not helping The City meet its annual reduction targets is the fact that residents continue to fail to comply with the recycling law.

As Robert Haley, the Department of the Environment’s Zero Waste program manager, said last week, “even without the new materials, a lot of people weren’t recycling or composting all they could.”

In 2009, San Francisco passed a law requiring residents and businesses to properly sort their garbage into the three bins, black for landfill, blue for recyclables and green for compostable items. Not doing so can come with fines beginning at $100.

Recent upgrades to Recology’s Pier 96 recycling plant, which processes the materials people put into their blue bins, is boosting the rate of material recycled.

Haley said that in the past about 15 percent of all materials processed from the blue bins was “residual” and ended up in the landfill. The upgrades, such as optical sorters and equipment that can “suck small bits of plastic off of other materials and pull glass and grit out” has cut the “residual” in half.

Ultimately, zero waste comes down to consumers changing their habits and properly recycling. The reduced bin size is supposed to help with that.

The smaller black bins are “just a great psychological thing,” said Giusti, Recology’s community affairs manager.

“When you open that 16 gallon black bin and you see this little tiny compartment, it makes you think, ‘Hmm, this might not be the first place I want to choose to put this item. Can it go into the blue or green bin?’”

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