At SFO, zero waste means zero confusion

On Saturday afternoon, a visitor from Los Angeles stood perplexed at San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Before he could rid himself of the dirty, disposable plate in his hands, he had to figure out whether to put it in the blue, green or black bin. He studied the signs before correctly selecting the green bin.

“The pictures helped,” he told me, pointing to images of pizza boxes and disposable packaging on the compost sign.

In 2016, SFO became the first airport in the United States to adopt a target to send zero waste to landfills by 2021. Like San Francisco’s zero waste goal, the ambition is as laudable as it is challenging. SFO has made incredible strides toward reducing plastic pollution and trash, while educating a global population.

But asking 56 million (and growing) travelers who come through SFO yearly to sort correctly isn’t easy. Visitors speak different languages and practice different customs. Bin colors, sorting signs, waste systems and recapturing capabilities vary considerably around the world. In New York City, only clean paper goes in the green bin. Compost collected through the city’s voluntary program goes in a brown bin.

Even people aware of these various systems don’t always recycle and compost.

As SFO works to overcome these differences and indifferences, leaders should pay attention. Making sorting more straightforward is critical to its success. Attendees at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco next month should set global standards for bins, signs and waste systems to address the huge impact our trash has on our planet.

“We’re part of a global community and serve passengers arriving from and departing to countries and cities where the icons and colors representing landfill, compost and recycling are all unique,” Erin Cooke, Sustainability Director at SFO, told me. “By streamlining our system and offering clear, color-coded graphics, we want to take the question mark away and replace it with an explanation mark to guide what goes where.”

Consistency is key. Visitors traveling between terminals see the same colors and signs. The airport’s sustainability team is also collaborating with businesses to streamline the types of disposable products offered, while promoting reusable materials. If all cups, forks and straws are compostable, for example, it’s easier for visitors to pick a bin.

Currently 100 out of the 180 airport concessioners are participating in SFO’s green business certification program with 30 already certified. Lease provisions also require concessioners to adopt a broad portfolio of sustainable standards.

Despite these measures, visitors still don’t always get it right. Juan Ramos, a custodian at SFO, sorts misplaced trash with a pair of trusty tongs. At one station, he found a water bottle and a cardboard box in the trash. Ramos said airport custodians service all the bins in the terminal hourly to reduce sorting contamination.

“A lot of people make mistakes,” he told me.

Officials at SFO are exploring novel ways to cut down on confusion even more. Guided by its director, the airport began exploring color coding products in partnership with its tenants. Plastic products, for example, would have a recycling symbol and a blue indicator. Pizza boxes and disposable packaging would have a green, compost indicator.

Consistency and innovation will bring SFO closer to its zero-waste goal. But standardizing recycling and composting practices around the world is also critical. Visitors shouldn’t be expected to remember compost is green in San Francisco and brown in New York City. Not everyone studies signs like the visitor from Los Angeles.

For sorting to be successful, people shouldn’t have to think so much.

Policymakers attending the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco from September 12th to 14th should making recycling and composting more consistent and innovative globally. The amount of municipal solid waste, a huge source of climate-change causing gases, is growing faster than the rate of urbanization, according to a report by The World Bank.

Since 2010, Recycling Across America has worked to standardize labels. Whole Foods, The Walt Disney World Resort, Mariposa County, Yosemite National Park and 800,000 schools are only some of many public and private organizations to adopt the nonprofit’s label. Recently, founder Mitch Hedlund presented to the European Union and was highlighted in the New York Times.

“This is a solution happening right now coast to coast,” she told me. “Recycling can save fresh water, reduce energy and prevent waste from going to the oceans. And it creates jobs. Something this important and beneficial shouldn’t be so confusing.”


Where do you toss dog poop? – Wilma Ribeiro

First, thanks for picking it up! By getting it off the sidewalk, you’ve already taken an important step toward saving shoes, San Franciscans’ health and the environment.

Right now, the Department of Environment asks San Franciscans to put all pet poop in the black bin, not the green. This is true even if it is collected in biodegradable or compostable bags. Recology, the City’s recycling provider, is not permitted to handle it.

You can also transport the dog droppings to the bathroom using a scooper or wad of toilet paper and flush it. Please remove it from the bag first though.

More sorting questions? I’m happy to answer! Email

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

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