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Where does the garbage go?

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That Bon Jovi CD you’ve been hanging onto all these years belongs in the blue bin, with the other recyclables. (Courtesy photo)

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.

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  • T-res

    You give trash a bad name, and rightfully so. Burying the equivalent of 800 Prii a day is not sustainable, even given their bad styling. But my question, which I didn’t see answered in the article is who gets the money made from the recycling and compost once it’s collected by Recology? Does this money go into the pockets of Recology? Does it come back to the City in cash or as an off set of the costs of the Recology contract?

  • AvaB

    I have a stack of Ben Carson for President bumper stickers that I tried to give away and no one wanted them. Which bin do I use for those?

  • Stallone Picard

    About a year ago I bought a metal, $30 coffee mug because I wanted to stop adding to the garbage pile. Shout out Peets Coffee dark roast… Shout out YETI Rambler. I was happy to learn that Peets actually gives a price cut of $0.10 when you bring an ‘own cup’. So after a year of daily coffee savings, this mug is making me money… AND I’m not creating garbage. Now that’s recycling. If we create less garbage, the municipal burden will shrink. This article really promotes that consume less attitude. Interesting read Konner, thanks for the clarity. Before reading this, I feared the city just dumped everything in the bay :(

  • If polystyrene foam packaging is less than 2% of the solid waste stream and an even smaller percentage of the San Francisco litter stream (according to the SF Litter Re-Audit 2009), when will you be banning the other 39% of the problem? Or is polystyrene being singled out? Even more alarming is the rationale in the draft legislation that is faulty since the National Toxicology Program states clearly that polystyrene is not a threat or concern to human health – that would be the chemical styrene. Please give Dr. Linda Birnbaum, Director of NTP a call for clarification.

  • Matt

    While I believe JBJ belongs in the black bin, 800 cars worth a day is way too much. I have a couple ideas. A) stop the spread of JBJ. B) make an app that allows you to take a pic of said product that will then advise which can to use. C) have a black bin weight limit and fine those over the limit or give them the chance to sift and correct the bin mismanagement. Either way, good article. I feel as though I’ve learned something.

  • Local Wizard

    Not sorting your trash is basically saying “I’m voting for Trump.”

  • Stella

    I live in Menlo Park, and, I kid you not, I gave my best friend (who also lives in San Mateo County) a compost bin with compostable bags for her 40th birthday. She cooks all the time and I just watched the food scraps go into the landfill bin. She is a highly educated woman and I had to teach her what could and couldn’t go into the green bin. This how-to information has to be readily available for people to follow through on the goals you so artfully articulated. Excellent article. Really informative and helpful.

  • Rob Santos

    Citizen education is key to this issue. Mr. Johnston, excellent breakdown of where all that trash goes. In my humble opinion, we should take a page out of “Back to the Future” and start using refuse to fuel the flying cars of the future.