If you’ve spent any time in San Francisco, you’ve probably come across the trio of trash, recycling, and compost bins. While initially inscrutable, there’s a small amount of joy that comes with being able to correctly sort the various parts of a disposable coffee cup into the right bins. The trio of bins, sometimes referred to as “The Fantastic Three,” are the result of a broader city initiative to generate zero waste by 2020. As warm and fuzzy as it feels to keep trash out of the landfill, is putting your paper cups in the compost bin actually going to make progress towards zero waste given the mountains of trash that end up in the landfill today? I decided to take a closer look at the zero waste policies and better understand if these small actions are worth it.

Progress so Far

Any news article about San Francisco’s garbage inevitably references the 80% diversion rate, which means that of all the waste that’s generated by the city, only 20% of it ends up in the landfill. While there’s some disagreement over how the diversion rate is calculated, there’s one stat that’s hard to argue with: the amount of garbage that ends up in landfills each year.

Amount of San Francisco's waste landfilled yearly in tons

As you can see, the amount of garbage that ends up in landfills has gone down steadily since 2000. What’s even more impressive is the population of the city has grown over that time period, which means that the amount of landfilled garbage has gone from 6.2 pounds per person per day in 2000 to 2.7 in 2012. If you simply extrapolate these trends forward, the city will generate zero waste in 2024. While hitting zero waste in 2024 is unlikely for a lot of reasons1, it does confirm that we’re making significant progress towards the goal. I think this will cause the social norms to continue to shift in the coming decade to a point where it will seem abnormal to just throw something in the trash and not recycle it in some way2.

Getting to Zero

Things are trending well, but what has the highest impact to make sure we continue to make progress? Fortunately, the city has compiled some statistics on the makeup of garbage that enters the landfill which gives us some clues:

Compost35%
Recyclables25%
Composite items7%
Plastic film5%
Clothing4%
Roofing4%
Treated wood3%
Diapers2%
Carpet2%
Animal waste1%
Furniture1%

There are a couple of things that stand out. The biggest is that a whopping 60% of garbage entering the landfill could have been composted or recycled. The city has already created a convenient system for recycling a majority of waste, but now relies on individuals to use that system. If you don’t have a compost bin already, it’s really easy: just buy a small garbage can and compostable garbage bags and put it somewhere in your kitchen. Toss any food scraps or dirty paper products in there, and throw that bag in the green bin when you take out the rest of the trash. You’re probably already familiar with recycling, but which plastics are recyclable was a little unclear to me: if it’s hard or rigid, it’s recyclable, if it’s a bag or film, it’s not.

While that covers a majority of what we throw away, there’s not much you can do about the next 2 largest categories, which makes up 11% of the waste. From what I can tell, composite is the closest to an “other” category, meaning there’s no single answer for how to recycle it. Plastic film is the next largest, and while the city has banned single-use plastic shopping bags, there’s still a lot of plastic film used for packaging food and other products. There are some companies that allow you to buy everyday products made and packaged with compostable plastic, but until you can buy those products at your local grocery store I would focus on the things you can compost and recycle.

While not anywhere near the largest category, it’s good to know that you should almost never have to throw away clothing, shoes, or other textiles. Even socks with holes in them can be ground up and turned into building insulation. The city started a new initiative recently to get recycling rates for clothing higher, and if you go to that site you can find the clothing drop-off location nearest to you.

Roofing is a surprisingly large category, and while I don’t know anything about recycling roofing material, the city has a pretty aggressive policy about recycling construction debris. This has been very successful already, so there’s reason to be optimistic that this is one of the more solvable categories.

Going into this investigation, I didn’t know what to expect. A lot of environmental issues seem almost fatalistic, so it was refreshing to find that this problem was being pragmatically addressed with real results to show for it. It’s also an issue where the actions of individuals are the biggest thing standing in the way of success, so I hope this motivates you to make composting and recycling a little bit more part of your everyday routine. This is my first time looking into the topic, so if you have any comments, corrections, or new data, please contact me.

  1. The biggest reason a linear extrapolation isn’t a good way to estimate when we’ll hit zero waste is that the easiest waste will get kept out first, leaving only the hard to recycle waste.

  2. For a more comprehensive coverage of this topic, you should watch the Futurama episode “A Big Piece of Garbage.”