San Francisco promises that by 2020, no garbage will end up in a landfill. But is that really possible?
Krausz argues that San Francisco has no comprehensive plan for achieving Zero Waste, while at the same time having little control over "top of the pipe" consumption, which generates a glut of trash. "While the city has achieved success at managing waste at the end-of-pipe, it has thus far failed to address the fundamental problem of consumption, which is driving waste generation," his study notes.
Guillermo Rodriguez and Jack Macy of San Francisco's Department of the Environment counter that there is a strategy, involving a host of different measures ranging from education, to policy initiatives, to incentive programs aimed at reducing waste. They think zero waste is possible. "We're probably at 99 percent diversion here in this office," said Macy, who serves as the city's Commercial Zero Waste Coordinator. "At least 90 percent of the discard stream is recyclable and compostable," he added. And as for the last 10 percent, "that pie will be shrinking as we find more markets" for recyclables.
Krausz also raised skepticism about Recology's bid for a landfill contract that would extend until 2025, five years beyond the deadline for all waste elimination. To that, Recology's Eric Potashner responded that state law requires 15 years of disposal capacity to guarantee a safety net, regardless of municipal aspirations.
Krausz is critical of San Francisco officials for promising zero waste, but he acknowledges that manufacturers of disposable goods, not city officials, are to blame. Ambitious legislative measures such as San Francisco's mandatory composting program and a ban on plastic bags have been enacted and achieved tangible results, but for items like ubiquitous thin-film plastics, dirty diapers, synthetic materials, and the like, good solutions have yet to be found.
Krausz' study also determined that no city on the planet that's set out to do so has ever actually succeeded at achieving zero waste. "If you are a city that is a member of Western civilization as we know it, you're not going to be zero waste to landfill, because you participate in the global economy," Krausz states plainly.
SF'S TRASH PIT
On a recent Friday morning, Recology's Potashner and Paul Giusti led a tour of the city's recycling and waste processing facilities. It featured a stop at the transfer station, housed in a large warehouse off of Tunnel Road where all the refuse from the black trash bins is deposited before being carted off to the Altamont Landfill. A sweet, pungent aroma hung in the air. "We call this the pit," Giusti explained as we approached a sunken area that could have contained multiple Olympic-sized swimming pools, extending a story or two below us into the earth. "This is the last frontier," Potashner added. "The last 20 percent."
It was filled with an astonishing quantity of trash, making a tractor that ambled awkwardly over top the mound to compact it down appear toy-like in comparison. The sea of discarded material contained every hue, and floating around in the debris were orange juice containers, cardboard boxes, and thousands upon thousands of (banned) plastic bags. Between 200 and 300 garbage trucks eject their contents into the pit each day, and a single truck can hold up to four tons of trash.
Giusti started working for Recology, formerly NorCal Waste Systems, in 1978, following in the footsteps of his father. Back then, the pit was more like a mountain: "When I would dump my truck, I could walk up this pile," he said, gesturing toward a set of sprinklers suspended from the ceiling to indicate how high it once extended. State data confirms the story: In 2011, according to CalReycle, San Francisco sent 446,685 tons of waste to the landfill. That number has steadily declined over time; in 2007, it stood at 628,914 tons.