San Francisco to Take Its Time Getting to Zero Waste

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After a 2017 announcement by the Chinese government that it’d no longer accept shipments of recycled materials from foreign countries that contain more than one percent impurities, the world lost its largest market for recycled paper and plastic, driving prices down and turning trash back into garbage.  Some cities, like Philadelphia and Memphis, have reduced or suspended their recycling efforts as a result.  San Francisco, which in 2003 committed to achieving zero waste by 2020, has given itself significantly more time to reach that goal.  

“Mayor Breed announced updated zero waste commitments last year,” said Peter Gallotta, San Francisco Department of the Environment (SF Environment) public relations and policy coordinator, referring to a September 2018 mayoral press conference. “San Francisco will need to reduce citywide refuse generation 15 percent and material sent to landfill or incineration 50 percent by 2030. These are very ambitious, but achievable, targets. San Francisco was one of the first cities in the United States to set the aspirational goal of achieving zero waste. That goal has driven tremendous progress. San Francisco exceeded its target of recovering 75 percent of materials by 2010 two years early. Today, San Francisco’s recovery rate is nearly 2.5 times the national average.”

“China’s restrictions changed the marketplace,” SF Recology spokesperson Robert Reed noted. “China requires bales of recyclables, such as paper, and plastic such as detergent bottles and water bottles, contain less than one percent impurities. An almost impossible standard to meet. San Francisco has stepped up to work towards that standard.” 

“San Francisco and other cities are not stockpiling materials,” Reed added. “Recycling companies do not have space to do that. San Francisco is consistently able to move bales of recycled paper. That’s because San Francisco produces high-quality bales of recycled paper and paper mills want high-quality bales. To keep recyclable paper clean and dry, there is a push on in San Francisco and across the county to keep liquids and food out of recycling bins.”

“The bales of recycled plastics we produce in San Francisco are also higher quality than the bales of recycled plastics produced in other cities,” Reed continued. “We also work extremely hard to maintain and improve relationships with companies that buy bales of recycled plastics. So, we are able to move our bales of rigid plastics. Examples include plastic water and soda bottles, plastic detergent bottles, and other rigid plastics.”

As part of a $14 million upgrade Recology installed state-of-the-art equipment at its Pier 96 Recycle Central sorting facility, including seven high-speed, computer-controlled optical sorters, which’re better able to separate materials, and a new reclamation system that reduces water used for truck washing by 80 percent. A new solar array was also installed, the largest privately-owned one in San Francisco.

A year ago Recology launched www.BetterAtTheBin.com, which offers video and data on the amount of plastic being produced and disposed of in San Francisco, and the costs and potential savings of re-use. A Better At The Bin recycling truck sporting a mural by San Francisco artist Sirron Norris tours schools and special events, disseminating information. Stickers with a visual guide to sorting waste from recyclables have been applied to 313,000 carts and containers. 

According to Reed, in addition to urging residents to be more conscientious about keeping recyclables free of food and other contaminants, it’s critical to lower the overall production of disposable material. 

“We are encouraging customers to embrace simple actions that will reduce their consumption of single-use plastics,” he said. 

Last year, Recology distributed 58,000 64-gallons recycling bins to residential properties, in addition to delivering 54,000 16-gallon refuse bins used for items destined to be landfilled.  

“There are reliable markets for rigid plastics such as detergent, water and soda bottles,” Reed explained.  “Currently there are no markets for plastic bags and other film or flimsy plastics such as plastic wrap. That is why we encourage people to keep a reusable tote bag at the ready when shopping.  Drinking straws are dimensionally small and lightweight and therefore difficult to capture in recycling plants. There are no current markets for the type of plastic they are made from. Metal straws that can be reused or paper straws that can be composted are easy solutions for people who need straws. Of course, the most environmental option is no straw. We are still in the very early stages of exploring fabric recycling. While there are established recycling markets for clean paper, cardboard, steel cans, aluminum cans and glass bottles, markets are much less developed or extensive for fabrics. We are testing pulling fabrics off the line at the sorting facility, bailing the product and sending test loads to see if sustainable markets can be developed. If people no longer want clothes, shoes and accessories still in good condition, we encourage donation to the many charitable organizations, including thrift stores, in San Francisco.”

A Pennsylvania-based startup, Clean Robotics, has developed a device, Trashbot, that automatically separates garbage.  The first, and only, Trashbot in San Francisco is located at 479 Jesse Street in the offices of HAX, a technology development firm and business partner of Clean Robotics.  After fielding a pilot Trashbot at Pittsburg International Airport last year, the machine has been placed at Pittsburg’s PPG Paints Arena, the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and Recology’s administrative offices in Seattle.  

According to Tanner Cook, co-founder and vice president of engineering at Clean Robotics, Trashbots can be individually programmed to meet specific recycling requirements.

“We’re in continuous contact with these companies to make sure that our system is properly sorting all of the many types of waste,” Cook said. “Most of them love what we’re doing with education and improving the waste stream. [The Trashbot] can allow facilities to make on the go sustainability decisions. Say they see an influx of coffee cups; coffee cups are not recyclable, so they implement programs to reduce the number of coffee cups used. We spent years developing an advanced AI that uses a variety of sensors and can recognize hundreds of categories of waste. Now more than ever, we need to improve our ability to educate the public on recycling and to increase the quality of our recyclables.”

 “All plastics can be recycled; most plastics can be sorted. It is a matter of whether the local recycling facility can sort the types of plastic into their different types and whether it makes financial sense to do so. As an example, HDPE are easy to sort, are made of high-value plastic, and are bulky. Candy wrappers are made of a mix of plastics and are still recyclable but are challenging to sort due to their size and use a comparatively tiny amount of plastic. It makes more sense to build infrastructure to sort milk jugs and ignore the candy bars since one milk jug equals 100 candy bars.”