If San Francisco wishes to keep food scraps and plastic out of landfills, recycling and composting should be the most convenient options for residents. (Mira Laing/2017 Special to S.F. Examiner)

If San Francisco wishes to keep food scraps and plastic out of landfills, recycling and composting should be the most convenient options for residents. (Mira Laing/2017 Special to S.F. Examiner)

Building codes should reflect San Francisco’s zero waste goals


Change can be good for San Francisco. The City’s green building codes are creating more energy efficient buildings, solar-ready roofs and electric-vehicle charging stations.

But many residents of San Francisco’s high-rise apartments are still expected to sort and haul their trash to different locations in garages and basements. It’s inconvenient, confusing and sometimes impossible.

Although almost all apartment buildings in The City compost, according to recycling provider Recology, San Franciscans generally have trouble finding the green bins. Last week, I had dinner with a friend who assured me she had to toss her leftovers in the garbage. Often, this means property managers have hidden the bins behind a locked door or left them unused and unloved in a random alley.

San Francisco is meeting its climate goals and modeling to the world that it’s possible for a population and economy to grow while climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions fall. But meeting our goal to send zero waste to landfills by 2020 is becoming more improbable.

Along with renewable energy and electric vehicle infrastructure, new apartment buildings should also incorporate features to make composting and recycling not only more available for residents, but the easiest option. The approximately 60,000 condominium and apartment units currently in San Francisco’s approval pipeline are an opportunity to improve the dysfunctional systems facing many city residents.

“It’s better to plan ahead and get it right,” Linda Corso, the general manager of the Cathedral Hill Plaza Apartments in Lower Pacific Heights, told me. “In the long run, doing it right now saves operating costs later.”

Cathedral Hill Plaza Apartments has modeled how better infrastructure leads to better recycling and composting results.

Although the building was constructed in the 1960s, long before the first blue bin appeared in San Francisco, Corso and her team managed to locate three refuse bins on each floor by the elevator. Not asking residents to make daily trips to the garage or hunt for green bins has significantly reduced the amount the building sends to landfills. Corso told me they’ve cut their trash by at least one third.

The owners have proposed a new building at 1481 Post St., which will also incorporate similar, commonsense features. Future residents will have three separate chutes on every floor that empty into big, green, blue and black refuse bins on the first floor. The building hasn’t sacrificed any units for the feature, and it wasn’t hard for the architect to design.

“If you know the challenges from the beginning, it’s not terribly inconvenient to work out,” Reilly Rabitaille, an associate with SLCE Architects who is working on the Post Street project, told me.

What is difficult to work out is why these features are not required.

New buildings must make recycling and compost areas at least as convenient as trash disposal, but developers don’t need to put the three bins in the same location. Chutes and diverter plates, which can send trash to different refuse bins with a flip of a switch, are not required.

New buildings can continue The City’s long tradition of asking residents to haul their trash to different locations; a tradition that’s not helping us get closer to a zero-waste future.

Kevin Drew, the residential zero waste senior coordinator at the Department of Environment, told me new buildings are providing convenient access to recycling and composting. But why not make it a requirement?

Building codes should reflect The City’s zero waste goals, just like it reflects our climate goals. If we’re going to keep food scraps and plastic out of landfills, recycling and composting should not only be at least as convenient at trash, they should be the most convenient options.

“When we think about how we can make more progress, strengthening or revising building requirements could be one tool,” Drew told me. “The other tool is technology.”

Drew said the industry is looking at different diverter options. But chutes, refuse rooms and diverter plates shouldn’t be the height of sophistication in a technology-hub like San Francisco. Smart bins could not only help San Franciscans sort, but they could also collect information leading to better educational outreach. Digital assistants, like Siri or Alexa, could also answer sorting questions in real time. Bay Area companies like Compology Zabble are already developing these technologies.

San Francisco shouldn’t waste the opportunity our city’s changing skyline presents. We can build a future without greenhouse gas emissions and garbage.


“Where would an old toothpaste tube go?” — Fia León-Kovatch, fourth grade

It’s a shame that what’s good for your teeth isn’t also good for the planet. Generally, toothpaste tubes go in the black bin. With close to 900,000 San Franciscans using at least three tubes per year, toothpaste contributes significantly to landfills.

TerraCycle, an international upcycling and recycling company, does accept oral care waste including toothpaste tubes, plastic toothbrushes and floss. To participate, check out their website and purchase a Zero Waste Box. They’ll send a box that you can then fill with old toothpaste tubes.

To cut down on waste, some people make their own toothpaste. While there are many recipes online, my dentist couldn’t recommend one. She said it was important to brush with fluoride twice a day to avoid tooth decay.

Hopefully, toothpaste companies will change their ways soon. Consider writing some of them letters asking them to make their tubes recyclable or compostable.

I love talking trash. Email questions to bluegreenorblack@gmail.com.

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 robynpurchia.com.

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