SF’s farmers markets waste chance to compost and recycle

Almost every day, local farmers lay out tables of fresh produce for San Franciscans to buy. Farmers markets are hailed as healthy, sustainable alternatives to corporate grocery stores. Seasonal fruits and vegetables are delivered at their peak. Markets also serve as gathering places where San Franciscans can eat lunch, listen to music and say hello to their neighbors.

While buying directly from farmers can help prevent waste incurred during the delivery process, markets also create waste. Almost everything is wrapped in hard-to-recycle plastic. Plastic bags, which San Francisco banned years ago, are plentiful.

Frustratingly, some farmers markets don’t even make blue and green bins available.

“Weekly, I observe patrons who, after onsite consumption of truck food at the Sunday Clement Street Farmers Market, deposit massive compostable material in the black bin,” a reader Eamon Illog wrote me. “Reason: there is no green bin at the venue.”

Clement Street isn’t alone. Green and blue bins are also hard to find, if not impossible, at the Fort Mason Farmers Market. When I brought up the issue with market managers two years ago, I was told to contact city officials. I notified Recology, The City’s recycling provider. To date, I still haven’t found green or blue bins.

This is a problem. San Francisco passed its mandatory composting and recycling ordinance because our waste has a serious impact on the environment. Rotting food releases methane, a potent gas responsible for climate change. Unrecycled plastic contaminates our beaches, gutters and streets. By 2050, scientists say there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean.

Requiring businesses to provide bins for recycling and composting is one way to address these impacts. Farmers markets must comply with City law. But some don’t.

Katy Chapman, market manager for the Clement Street Farmers Market, told me she had the compost bin removed temporarily until she could figure out what to do with improper sorting. She said patrons have put tin foil and coffee lids into the green bin. She’s even found illegally dumped trash bags from people’s homes.

“I don’t want to say that people are being indifferent or lazy,” she told me diplomatically. “But people are not being mindful about how they dump their trash.”

Although Chapman has reinstated all required bins, she remains frustrated by the problem. Patrons are still not sorting their trash. She’s tried placing the green bin close to her station for monitoring with a handwritten, customized sign.

In the past, Chapman said the market incurred charges from Recology; although, she can’t remember the exact dates or the amounts. Nevertheless, this is something the nonprofit, which runs the farmers market, wants to avoid.

Robert Reed of Recology said the company doesn’t impose penalties on customers. But the company does have different rates for recycling, composting and trash to incentivize better practices. A green bin filled with trash will be charged like a black bin.

That said, Recology offers many services to help San Franciscans avoid the black bin. They are one of the few waste companies in the United States with a business model based on composting and recycling, not landfilling. To facilitate better sorting, the company hosts workshops, offers coaching, and makes various signs, including posters San Franciscans can customize. Recology representatives want to make composting and recycling easier.

“We have a sizable team of zero waste specialists,” Reed told me. “We’re at the ready to help any customer who wants to do more recycling and composting.”

In addition to Recology, there are numerous other public and private resources. The Presidio Trust contracts with Clean Vibes, a company dedicated to responsible waste management at outdoor festivals and events, to guard against recycling and compost contamination. The organization also works closely with its partners and vendors to develop best practices.

To date, the Presidio has had 99,883 visitors to its picnics, Off the Grid and Twilight, and an amazing diversion rate of 86.6 percent of trash away from landfills.

“Strive to educate the public,” suggested Margaret Casey, the Presidio Trust’s cultural and community manager. “Put messaging front and center that aligns your efforts with healthy lifestyles.”

Chapman expressed a willingness to work with Recology in the future — a good first step.

Farmers’ markets — and all San Francisco businesses — shouldn’t react to sorting problems by taking away green and blue bins. Yes, sorting can be difficult, confusing and burdensome at times. But there are many resources to help us solve our waste woes. To keep the planet healthy, we simply need to step up and ask for a hand.

GREEN SPACE Q AND A

Where do we toss sponges? – Brian

It doesn’t take too long before our sponges lose that fresh feeling. It makes sense. Keeping our pots, pans, dishes and countertops clean is hard work. It’s sad to honor sponges’ effort by sending them to the landfill, but that’s where most of them belong.

Typically, kitchen sponges contain petroleum-based and synthetic materials that can’t be recycled or composted. Unfortunately, eco-friendly sponges made from plants also belong in the black bin. Only products labeled “compostable” – a regulated term – are allowed in San Francisco’s green bin.

Look for reusable sponges, brushes and dish towels that can be washed and used again. There are a variety of options that can help eliminate spots, grease and the need to visit any of the bins.

Got a waste woe? I’m happy to help! Send sorting questions to bluegreenorblack@gmail.com.

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 robynpurchia.com.

Robyn Purchia
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Robyn Purchia

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