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Waste from San Francisco’s public trash cans goes straight to the landfill

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A woman throws an item away in a trash can on Market Street on Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018. (DavÌd RodrÌguez/Special to S.F. Examiner)

When it comes to public trash cans, city officials have bigger trash to sort.

While San Francisco is working to boost recycling rates among businesses and residents, the garbage tossed in thousands of public trash cans still goes straight into landfill.

The City admitted earlier this year that it will not reach its previously stated goal of sending zero-waste to the landfill by the end of 2020 and instead announced a new goal: cut the 600,000 tons of garbage going to the landfill today in half by 2030.

To get there, city officials and trash hauler Recology are focusing on private account holders of businesses and residents to boost the recycling rates — not what ends up tossed away in the public trash cans.

The latest proposal to boost recycling rates would require hundreds of restaurants, hotels, commercial properties and other large refuse generators to hire trash sorters if they do not properly sort their trash. The legislation, introduced by Supervisor Ahsha Safai, is pending approval at the Board of Supervisors and has drawn opposition from business advocates.

Peter Gallotta, spokesperson for San Francisco Department of the Environment, which supports Safai’s legislation, told the San Francisco Examiner that “public trash cans make up less than 1 percent of citywide refuse generation.”

That’s why, he said, the focus is on the bins at homes and work. “Being better at the bin at home and at work is how we can make greater strides towards zero waste as a city,” Gallotta said.

While apartment buildings and businesses are given three bins to properly dispose of their refuse — green for compost, blue for recycling and black for landfill — public trash cans offer no choices, just one can.

Gallotta, however, noted that “many of the cans have recycling tops and clean recyclables are often recovered from these cans.”

“The rest of the material is highly contaminated and we currently don’t have processing mechanisms to be able to recover it,” Gallotta said. “Overall, it’s a very small percentage of the waste generated in San Francisco.”

Recology spokesperson Robert Reed confirmed to the Examiner that material in public trash cans is not sorted and goes to the landfill.

Reed said that the company studied the trash tossed out in the public cans in 2010 and “found dirty and in some cases potentially hazardous materials.”

“Examples include: dog droppings in and out of plastic bags, dirty diapers, used hypodermic needles, used facial tissues, razor blades, and in some cases human waste,” Reed wrote in an email. “These materials and liquids from half-full beverage containers (coffee cups) contaminate paper. We found very little material that could be recovered. For all these reasons and more, material collected from public litter cans can not be sorted and goes directly to landfill.”

Reed couldn’t provide the total amount of litter collected annually from the public trash cans. “To achieve efficiencies of collection the contents of public litter cans are often picked up by neighborhood route trash collection trucks,” Reed wrote. “Therefore, we do not have a specific breakout number.”

Reed said there are about 4,000 public trash cans in San Francisco and each one can hold 28 pounds.

The department estimates that of the total tons currently going to the landfill, about 60 percent could otherwise be recycled.

Safai’s legislation is before the board’s Budget Committee Nov. 29 for a vote. Notably, the Port of San Francisco is asking for an exemption to treat its cans the same way public cans are after it learned that the proposal would include public trash cans on Port property.

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