|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.