SF’s landfill contract includes consumer fees to reach ‘zero waste’ after 2020

It will take more than handing out 600 reusable coffee mugs labeled #SFThingToDo, but the Department of the Environment says San Francisco will meet the target of sending no more garbage to the landfill after 2020 – and it could mean socking customers with rate hikes.

Under a new landfill deal with Recology, The City commits to annually reducing tonnage of garbage trucked to the landfill. Last year’s 373,940 tons is supposed to decline to just 53,420 tons in 2020 followed by zero tons in subsequent years.

In 2002 city officials adopted a zero waste by 2020 policy, meaning no more refuse would go into the landfill or incinerators. Other Californian cities have followed suit, most recently San Diego adopted a zero waste goal by 2040 and last year Los Angeles a similar policy for 2025.

The City says they have achieved an 80 percent diversion rate. “We believe achieving zero waste is possible,” said Department of Environment spokesman Guillermo Rodriguez. “Over half of what still goes in the landfill bins can be recycled in the blue bin or composted in the green bin.” If the refuse is properly sorted “San Francisco’s diversion rate can increase from 80 percent to 90 percent.”

Still, to get to zero will admittedly take a lot of work. The contract sets annual landfill tonnage reduction targets. If those targets aren’t met, fees of up to $15 per ton could be assessed and passed on to customers if approved by the Rate Fairness Board. Those fees would fund city programs to reduce waste.

David Pilpel, a rate payer advocate, expressed concerns about the fees. “Although there is a rate-setting process on paper they are kind of straight-jacketing the whole thing,” Pilpel said, suggesting the rate board would feel obligated to approve the contractual fees.
He also said it was unfair for all customers to pay increased rates. “Why should I pay to sort out your trash?” he said, suggesting instead targeting offenders.

With a growing population and a thriving economy, achieving zero waste may seem unreachable. The contract’s baseline year is 2014, when there was 373,940 tons of waste sent to the current landfill. The 2015 target is 320,520 tons.

But projections show the diversion will come up short this year. As of June this year, 190,461 tons have gone to the landfill and “current estimates for final year-end target are closer to 2014,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez downplayed the contract’s zero waste fee provision. “We don’t think we will need to seek [fee] authorization,” Rodriguez said, adding the provision was included so that “should things change the city had options to try to get back on course to zero waste.”
He noted, “When numbers get back below the target the fee would cease.”

There is no shortage of controversy around the Recology landfill contract signed July 22 by head of the Department of the Environment Debbie Raphael. The deal takes away the landfill business from competing refuse company Waste Management, which operates the Altamont landfill, where the city’s trash has long ended up. The company has filed a lawsuit over the bidding process.

There is an appeal calling for environmental review since the trash will be hauled by trucks 40 miles farther away round-trip to Recology’s Solano County landfill. That’s expected to be voted on in the fall by the Board of Supervisors.

The board didn’t have to vote on the agreement after terms were altered last minute to make the contract a nine year agreement with a six year option, not a straight 15-year term. Contracts of 10 years or longer require board approval.

Getting to zero waste has included new laws and outreach, like a July event in Justin Herman Plaza where free mugs were handed out with free coffee to promote the effort. In 2009, The City adopted a law mandating residences and businesses recycle utilizing three different bins – green for composting like food scraps, blue for recyclables like bottles, black for landfill – or face fines.

One of the department’s newest initiatives is the recycling of textiles like old clothes and shoes with more than 100 drop off locations around The City.

There are nearly 50,000 tons of waste going to the landfill that falls into “other materials” category, including 19,873 tons of textiles and apparel, according to department documents. Other items include 1,188 tons of appliances, 506 mattresses, 3,138 tons of furniture and 8,040 tons of carpet or upholstery.

Other efforts will be required including advocating for state legislation to increase requirements for recyclable materials in products and take-back programs, like The City’s recently adopted mandate for drug manufactures to take back unwanted drugs, Rodriguez said.

Joshua Sabatini
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Joshua Sabatini

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