Lax enforcement mars composting data

There’s something rotten in San Francisco, but the smell isn’t coming from a landfill agreement, or, more surprisingly, the seemingly ubiquitous green bins. Six years after The City passed a law requiring everyone to compost, many San Franciscans still don’t separate their food scraps from their trash.

Residents’ failure to compost is not always an issue of inattention or avoidance, though. Many want to compost but aren’t given the chance. A tenant in the 101-unit apartment building at 378 Golden Gate Ave. is one such person. On the condition they remain anonymous to avoid retaliation, they told me their landlord never provided a kitchen pail and there is no green bin outside.

Others in The City have similar stories. Last week, a Nob Hill landlord told a tenant that a green bin for the building was still “in the works.” Multiple tenants at the Fillmore Center, a LEED-Silver building, say there is no composting. Even if residents in The City get their own kitchen pail, they can’t compost if their building doesn’t have a green bin outside.
Identifying and fixing the problem isn’t brain surgery. If a building doesn’t have a green bin, tenants aren’t composting. Under the law, The City’s trash collector, Recology, must give notice to these buildings. The City may impose fines.

But this doesn’t happen. According to Guillermo Rodriguez at the Department of Environment, the City “has not issued any fines or citations for noncompliance.” Instead, it prefers to offer economic incentives and outreach programs to get people composting. The City says this method has been successful at getting 99 percent of San Francisco’s apartment buildings to compost.

I must accept on faith that 99 percent is right (The City never provided me with data). But I can’t discount the tenants’ stories either. Something just doesn’t smell right.

The situation at 378 Golden Gate may explain why. When I asked Robert Reed at Recology whether the building has a compost bin, he showed me a picture of a small, green bin located on Larkin Street. Written on the lid was “374-378 Golden Gate.”

Here’s proof 378 Golden Gate is one of the 99 percent of apartment buildings that compost. Not that its tenants would know, though, they dump their trash and recycling on Golden Gate Avenue. That the tenants aren’t made aware of the bin’s location may explain how one small, green bin manages to serve a 101-unit building and the buildings next door — it’s not being used.

Because of this nosy columnist, Recology and The City are fixing the situation at 378 Golden Gate. But if San Francisco plans to reach its zero-waste goal by 2020, our composting program needs a swift kick in the rear. Economic incentives are not ensuring every apartment building establishes effective composting programs. Outreach campaigns with cute fliers and slogans aren’t getting green bins where they need to be. The City can’t possibly knock on the doors of over 8,600 apartment buildings in San Francisco.

Our composting law will only succeed if landlords (and businesses) really step it up. They are in the best position to reach newcomers to The City and identify individuals who aren’t composting. They know when the green bin is missing or insufficient.

I’m not saying individuals are never to blame and I’m definitely not saying landlords should fine or evict people. But why is it so hard to get a big, green bin and educate folks once a year? Why hasn’t The City fined landlords who can’t prove they’ve complied with these simple requirements? Doesn’t the law have teeth for a reason?

We have five years to reach our ambitious zero-waste goal. If your building doesn’t have a green bin, please report your landlord anonymously to The City. If your building does, please take your banana peel out of the trash and do what’s right for San Francisco, the environment and our collective noses.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist, who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time.

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