Ultimate zero

San Francisco promises that by 2020, no garbage will end up in a landfill. But is that really possible?

Too much trash: Recology workers sort through tons of the city's waste.


In January, Mayor Ed Lee appeared on the PBS NewsHour to talk up the city's Zero Waste program, an initiative to eliminate all landfilled garbage by 2020 by diverting 100 percent of the city's municipal waste to recycling or compost. "We're not going to be satisfied," with the 80 percent waste diversion already achieved, Lee told program host Spencer Michels. "We want 100 percent zero waste. This is where we're going."

But somewhere in Te Anau, New Zealand, an environmental scholar tuning into an online broadcast of the program was having none of it. "I sat there thinking, no, you're not. It would be great if you were, but you're not — for obvious reasons," said Robert Krausz, who's working toward a PhD in environmental management, describing his reaction during a Skype call with the Bay Guardian.

Krausz, a Lincoln University scholar originally from Canada, spent three years studying municipal zero-waste initiatives internationally, and completed an in-depth, 40-page analysis of San Francisco's Zero Waste program as part of his doctoral thesis.

He may as well have taken aim at a sacred cow. The city's Zero Waste program has near-universal support among local elected officials, and has garnered no shortage of glowing media attention. San Francisco's track record of diverting 80 percent of waste from the landfill is well ahead of the curve nationally, scoring 15 percent higher than Portland, Ore., a green hub of the Pacific Northwest, and 20 percentage points or higher above Seattle, according figures provided by Recology, San Francisco's municipal waste hauler.

Despite the city's well-earned green reputation, Krausz arrived at the pessimistic conclusion that "San Francisco's zero waste to landfill by 2020 initiative is headed for failure." In seven years' time, he predicts, the program deadline will be marked with a day of reckoning rather than a celebratory gala. "I think the city is setting itself up," Krausz told the Guardian. "Somebody's going to be holding the bag in 2020."




Sporting a goatee and glasses, Krausz comes across as the type you might find locking up his bike outside a natural foods store with canvas bags at the ready. When he visited San Francisco, he said he was ready to be wowed by the example of an ecologically enlightened city, yet ultimately left in disappointment. "It was just another affluent American city, in terms of consumption."

The problem, he argues, is that people are still buying way too much disposable stuff — and a significant amount can't be recycled. Plastic bags, food wrapping, pantyhose, plastic film, pet waste, construction materials with resin in them (like the popular Trex decking), and particularly disposable diapers have nowhere to go but into the landfill.

San Francisco produces a total of about six kilograms of trash per person per day before diversion is factored in — three times the U.S. national average. That's a sobering figure that puts a slight dent in the city's eco-conscious image. It's not really fair to denizens of the city by the Bay, because it counts trash generated by 20 million annual visitors, daytime employees, developers, and businesses as well as residents. Nevertheless, the trash output ranks well above the per capita average for the Eurozone, which clocks in at a minimalistic 0.5 kg per person per day.

The city has earned its bragging rights for making strides toward diverting waste from the landfill — yet truckloads of waste still leave the famously green city every day. Since 2003, Krausz notes, San Francisco's overall waste generation has actually increased, from 1,900 to 2,200 kilograms per person per year. At the same time, the per capita amount of waste going into a landfill has dropped, from about 1,000 to 500 kilograms per year. That's still a lot of garbage.