It can be surprisingly confusing to throw something away in San Francisco.
We’ve all been there before, standing over the three multicolored bins wondering: “Are my Bon Jovi CDs recycling because they’re plastic, or garbage because they’re Bon Jovi?”
We make these small disposal decisions every day on the front end of an elaborate waste management system. But why? What’s the point of the three bins? And where does all this stuff go?
Those three bins — green for composting, blue for recycling and black for trash — are part of a promise The City made more than a decade ago, a goal to stop sending anything to landfill. The Department of Environment calls it “Zero Waste,” and per their Climate Action Strategy, the effort could cut 293,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions every year. That makes Zero Waste one of the most important things San Francisco can do to combat climate change.
San Francisco’s refuse hauling company, Recology, collects almost 3,000 tons of waste per day.
Let’s start with the green bin.
First piloted in the mid-’90s and made mandatory in 2009, the green bin is for compostables: food scraps, soiled paper, Starbucks cups (yep, they’re not recycling) and yard trimmings. Recology collects about 650 tons of compostables per day, most of it food scraps.
The material goes to one of two Recology composting facilities, either outside Vacaville or Tracy. It’s sorted to remove contaminants, most commonly plastic bags. There’s even a magnet to remove all the restaurant silverware.
The material is ground, spread into rows, turned periodically, then sold as organic compost. Two months after you throw your apple core in the green bin, it will be fertilizing a local vineyard or farm — a far better fate than wallowing in the landfill generating potent greenhouse gases.
Now the blue bin.
Using a single stream for bottles, cans, paper and rigid plastic (but not film or bags), Recology collects and sorts 600 tons of recyclables each day. Then they have to sell it — recyclables are a commodity like pork bellies or cotton.
About 80 percent is paper and cardboard. Bundled by grade, junk mail being less valuable than office white, the paper is sold in China and Vietnam. There it’s pulped, de-inked and “downcycled” into lesser paper products.
Plastic is sorted and sent to two new recycling plants in the Central Valley. It’s shredded, pelletized and remolded into products like food packaging, jacket insulation or faux wood.
Tin cans go to a foundry in Oregon and are used to make other steel products, like construction rebar. Aluminum is the star of the show, being cheaper and far less energy-intensive to recycle than refine. Ours goes to domestic or overseas plants, where cans become cans again.
Glass is sent to a manufacturing plant in Fairfield. It’s sorted by color, melted for sterilization and reblown. Six weeks after you throw a bottle in the blue bin, it can be back on the shelf in San Francisco.
There’s another, less visible refuse stream that functions similarly to the blue bin: construction and demolition debris. It fluctuates, but on average Recology collects 400 tons of C&D per day.
Clean wood is ground and sent to biomass facilities in Lodi and Woodland, where it’s burned for energy. Metal, plastics and cardboard go to the same end as their blue bin counterparts. Concrete is crushed into gravel for roadbeds. And sheetrock is pulverized, its fine gypsum dust becoming an additive in compost.
Everything else — everything that isn’t recycled, composted or reused — is buried in a hole in the ground. This is the black bin, and Recology collects 1,200 tons of it per day. That’s 800 Toyota Priuses every day.
The Department of Environment estimates about 60 percent of the material going to landfill could be recycled or composted. That will require better practices by people on the front end: more sorting, less consumption; and better technology on the back end, like the idea to press waste, extract the liquid organics and use it for biogas production.
The remaining 40 percent is mostly “problem products” — diapers, plastic bags, juice boxes, Styrofoam. Some could be redesigned. Some are just wrong, which is why, for example, Board of Supervisors President London Breed and I crafted legislation to ban Styrofoam packaging in The City.
San Francisco has the best recycling practices in the country, but we are still burying the equivalent of 800 cars in the ground every day. We can change that with new systems and diligence every time we find ourselves wondering: “What bin does this go in?”
Happy Earth Day. And if you must — like, only if it’s really scratched — “Slippery When Wet” goes in the blue bin.
Conor Johnston is the chief of staff to the president of the Board of Supervisors, London Breed, and a Twin Peaks resident. The views here are his own.