How To Practically Increase Recycling & Composting Rates, & Decrease Landfill Waste: A San Francisco City Case Study

How To Practically Increase Recycling & Composting Rates, & Decrease Landfill Waste: A San Francisco City Case Study

San Francisco has one of the highest recycling and composting rates (and lowest landfill rates) of any city in the world.

They divert 80% of their waste to recycling and compost. As a comparison, New York only diverts about 21 percent of its waste, and Chicago is at about 10 percent.

In this case study, we list a range of factors and strategies that allowed them to practically achieve that feat.


Summary – To Increase Recycling and Composting Rates

  • Pass recycling/composting legislation
  • Ban, or add charges to certain types of non recyclable waste
  • Introduce market conditions that encourage recycling over landfill waste
  • Provide discounts and charges to businesses based on the waste they generate
  • Partner with one waste management company instead of several to streamline and make waste management more efficient
  • Scale up and invest in recycling and composting operations, facilities and infrastructure
  • Fund the waste management system primarily through waste collection fees
  • Provide employment opportunities through the recycling system
  • Designing products differently so they are suited for recycling
  • Being aware of reasonable recycling and composting numbers as goals/targets (as a % of all city waste generated)


1. Pass Recycling/Composting Legislation 

  • Passing legislation to make recycling/composting mandatory for businesses and residents in certain ways


2. Ban, Or Add Charges To Certain Types Of Non Recyclable Waste

  • Ban items like single use plastic bags at supermarkets
  • Or, put a charge on a single use paper bag (or items that are more likely to contribute to landfill)


3. Introduce Market Conditions That Encourage Recycling Over Landfill Waste

  • San Francisco initially set trash collection rates much higher than recycling and composting rates – but they adjusted these rates down to make them more comparable
  • Instead, what their standard residential bins include a 64-gallon blue recycling bin, a 32-gallon green composting bin, and 16-gallon black trash bin [to encourage more recycling waste]


4. Provide Discounts And Charges To Businesses Based On The Waste They Generate

  • Businesses are also charged according to the volume of waste they present.
  • They receive discounts for using the green and blue bins, and are penalized if recyclables or compostables end up in the trash


5. Partner With One Waste Management Company Instead Of Several To Streamline & Make Waste Management More Efficient

  • SF has an exclusive partnership with waste management company Recology – working with one company eases the administrative burden and makes it possible to collaborate on long-term goals
  • New York, by comparison, has a private system for commercial waste, comprised of hundreds of competing waste collection companies. This makes it challenging for the local government to collaborate on citywide initiatives.


6. Scale Up & Invest In Recycling & Composting Operations, Facilities & Infrastructure

  • All of the city’s recyclables are brought to Recycle Center, a 200,000 square foot warehouse … that processes 40 to 45 tons of materials per hour … 14 people work alongside high-tech screens, magnets and optical sorters to weed out contamination and separate the paper, metals and plastics … similar materials are able to be sorted quickly and shipped domestically or abroad
  • In terms of compost – all of the city’s yard waste and food scraps are brought to Jepson Prairie Organics … compostables are weighed, ground up and blended. Eventually, the nutrient-rich product is sold as fertilizer to vineyards in wine country and nut growers in the Central Valley
  • Recycle Central and Jepson Prairie host national and international visitors to teach them about the keys to San Francisco’s success


7. Fund The Waste Management System Primarily Through Waste Collection Fees

  • San Francisco’s waste management system costs about $300 million annually, the program is funded solely through waste collection fees, which are no higher than average for the Bay Area


8. Provide Employment Opportunities Through The Recycling System

  • [in some cases] for each ton of material, 20 more jobs are created when you recycle than if you put that material in a landfill


What Are Areas For Even Further Improvement?

  • [it’s estimated] that 60 percent of what ends up in San Francisco’s trash bins could be composted or recycled
  • more awareness and education is required to further improvement in landfill diversion rates
  • And, manufacturers need to start doing things differently by designing and making products differently so that they’re using materials that can be handled easily in the recycling and composting streams of waste management




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