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Sustainability Plan / Solid Waste / Introduction

 Garbage has always been an issue of controversy for San Francisco residents and elected officials. Local debates about using trash for fill in San Francisco Bay and the public health impacts of proposed municipal incinerators were a fixture of local politics for much of the first half of the 20th century.

The advent of modern landfills in neighboring cities, which provided a convenient means to export the problem, and the invention of packer trucks, which allowed “efficient” collection of solid waste, quelled local debate for a time. Unfortunately, these changes also displaced many of the traditional recycling activities performed by the local scavenger companies, whose prior practice was to sort trash for reusable commodities such as paper, rags and metals.

Beginning with Earth Day 1970, the environmental and recycling movement re-opened public debate by establishing the connections between the “throw-away” society, the dangers of landfilling and incineration, and broader resource-conservation issues. It became clear that Americans were burying in landfills unconscionable -- and often toxic -- quantities of natural resources, including the world’s forests (in the form of paper and wood products), non-renewable petroleum reserves (in the form of plastics and tires), other limited natural resources (including semi-precious metals like aluminum).
Even nutrients from diminishing agricultural top-soil were being buried in the form of food waste. Independent recycling centers were opened in the City to try to stem this colossal waste.

In 1989 the state legislature passed the Integrated Waste Management Act, requiring California counties to divert 50% of what they send to landfill by the year 2000. Around the same time, the City started its curbside residential recycling program and many businesses began establishing recycling programs in the workplace. There remains a fundamental challenge:
local solid waste generation is increasingly the result of broader national and international market trends, including increased production of disposable products and the use of packaging as a marketing tool. Efforts to achieve sustainable urban waste management must tackle the difficult question of commodities and packaging arriving from distant sources, used and discarded locally, and processed and returned to distant manufacturers and agricultural users.

San Francisco has a remarkably high per capita waste-generation rate -- an average of 7 1/2 pounds of waste and recyclables per person per day, compared with a national average (and Americans are the biggest trash-producers in the world) of 5 pounds per person. Over 70% of this waste is generated by businesses and institutions. Although the City has a reasonably high recycling rate (29% by current estimates), San Francisco policy-makers, businesses and consumers must commit to drastic changes in the way resources are treated.

three fundamental approaches to reducing waste are 1) to avoid creating waste in the first place, 2) to purchase durable, repairable products and reusable packaging, and 3) to purchase more products made from recycled materials in order to strengthen commodities markets for recovered materials. These strategies, in addition to expanding access to neighborhood recycling centers and improved recycling collection and processing programs that target more materials, will reduce San Francisco’s waste stream.

This commitment will yield significant rewards beyond resource conservation and reduced landfilling.
Recycling and waste reduction represent a major local-economy growth sector that is still largely untapped. Recycling and reuse are significantly more labor-intensive than garbage hauling, and create a new source of jobs in collection, processing, and repair or manufacturing -- the kind of jobs for people with low skill levels that have become increasingly scarce in San Francisco. Business taxes from such recycling and reuse businesses will also expand local government revenues.

The City has another major incentive to reduce landfill dependence. Without a municipal landfill within city limits,
San Francisco depends on exporting waste to Alameda County for landfilling. The current, long-term landfill contract requires that San Francisco maintain a higher recycling rate than Alameda County. To meet this condition and to preserve the City's allocated landfill space, the San Francisco Recycling Program, in conjunction with other departments, such as the Bureau of Street Environmental Services, the Bureau of Water Pollution Control, and the Recreation and Park Department, has been working to implement many of the policies and programs suggested in this plan.

To date, waste reduction has been largely voluntary. A more effective approach must include economic incentives that
make it more expensive to “waste,” and more cost-effective to recycle and reuse. Eventually, consideration must be given to mandatory measures, including disposal bans on locally recyclable materials or mandatory recycling for businesses and residents. Finally, businesspeople in every economic sector -- including the construction, manufacturing, wholesale, retail and service industries -- must take responsibility for wise resource use.

True sustainability, which implies eliminating garbage collection service and landfilling -- will require dramatic changes to almost every economic transaction. Moving toward sustainability will transform many of the day-to-day activities of consumers, workers, and business people. There is no time like the present to begin.