Under San Francisco’s mandatory composting law, the Department of Environment has the authority to fine residents who don’t comply. (Courtesy photo)

Fines, foodies and Airbnb could get San Francisco closer to ‘Zero Waste’


San Franciscans don’t all cheer for the Giants, stand in line for brunch or disrupt on a daily basis. We also all don’t compost, even though it’s the law.

San Francisco sends more to the landfill now than four years ago, according to recent data. Colorful posters, stickers and kitchen pails provided by the Department of Environment and San Francisco’s trash provider, Recology, have not put us on track to reach The City’s “Zero Waste” goal by 2020. Even making black bins significantly more expensive than green and blue bins is not enough motivation. It’s time for The City to take a different approach.

“We have to wake up an audience where zero waste by 2020 doesn’t resonate as exciting,” Guillermo Rodriguez at the Department of Environment told me.

Faced with a similar problem, Seattle officials threatened to fine residents. In 2015, the city authorized its waste contractor to attach tags to any trash bin containing more than 10 percent food. A tag would cost $1 for single-family homes and $50 for apartment buildings and offices. While it only lasted months, the threat of a fine certainly got the word out about composting.

Under San Francisco’s mandatory composting law, the Department of Environment also has the authority to fine. Rodriguez told me they’re exploring this option for big apartment buildings and large downtown offices that aren’t properly composting — “folks that really have the means to be more effective,” he said.

I like the idea. Green police wouldn’t have to go through people’s trash to check for food scraps. The City could simply enforce the law’s accessibility and education requirements for building managers.

People around The City have told me their buildings don’t have green bins because they can’t find them. Too often, bins are placed away from their black and blue counterparts. There are no signs and little outreach to help new tenants and employees. Last year, I wrote about one, small bin serving 101 units at 378 Golden Gate Ave. Unfortunately, I keep finding similar examples.

Yes, some managers do a fantastic job making composting easy. Linda Corso at Cathedral Hill Apartments in Lower Pacific Heights emphasizes composting in move-in kits. Working with the Department of Environment, they fit small recycling and composting stations next to the elevator on every floor. A fine — or the threat of a fine — may motivate all managers to take similar steps.

Of course, even when green bins are available, there’s no guarantee San Franciscans will use them. The City also has to motivate residents who are simply uninterested.

“I think, in San Francisco, the rank and file aren’t as concerned with The City’s green cred as they were a few years ago, especially with the demographic shift,” Lawrence Grodeska, a former internet communications coordinator at the Department of Environment, told me. “Along with punitive measures to make sure infrastructure is in place, there also has to be innovative outreach that responds to what residents actually need, want and do.”

The City recently launched an innovative outreach campaign. After assessing San Franciscans’ awareness, knowledge and confidence in the composting program, The City launched “Real Foodies Compost.” The campaign targets new, young San Franciscans who love food, but don’t know about composting. Local foodies with large social media followings promote the campaign and teach San Franciscans how to participate.

A campaign with Airbnb may also help travelers to San Francisco learn about the law. The City should work with the site to assess how tourists may (or may not) approach composting and design appropriate responses. Simply including information about composting with Airbnb’s reminder email might increase awareness.

San Franciscans don’t all count their carbon emissions, conserve water and care about garbage. But that doesn’t mean composting can’t be as common as San Franciscans’ light jacket. To get closer to zero waste, The City must expand its efforts. It has to be as bold and audacious as the goal itself.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time.AirBnBCathedral Hill Apartmentsenvironmentgreen spaceLinda CorsoReal Foodies CompostRobyn PurchiaSan FranciscoSeattlezero waste

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