SAN FRANCISCANS ARE FAMOUS for schlepping reusable grocery bags to Whole Foods and toting their own mugs to the neighborhood coffee shop. But our individual aversion to waste is actually part of a larger civic obsession: We have become, without question, the country’s leading trash misers. Whereas the national average for diverting garbage from landfills through recycling and composting is 34 percent, San Francisco is at 80 percent—and that includes waste from construction sites, which the national number does not account for. (As for other major metropolitan areas, Los Angeles County diverts 70 percent of its waste, while New York and Chicago manage a lowly 15 percent.) While San Francisco may be lampooned for passing laws banning plastic bags and Styrofoam or mandating that all residences compost, it’s not difficult to see the benefits of such micromanagement. “The rest of the country sees S.F. for what it is: on a high horse moralistically,” says EPA regional administrator Jared Blumenfeld, former director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment. “But this isn’t one of those issues. Zero waste is something that any city can move toward.”
Of course, the city isn’t satisfied with a landfill diversion rate of 80 percent: Its goal is zero waste—that means absolutely nothing going to the dump or the incinerator—by 2020. To close the garbage gap, City Hall is busy experimenting: It has deployed a pair of outreach workers to go door-to-door educating residents on blue and green bin sorting; it recently installed water bottle–refilling stations along the Embarcadero; and it’s piloting a pharmaceutical take-back program at pharmacies and police stations. “If everyone simply used our current programs correctly, we could be diverting about 90 percent of our landfill waste,” says Robert Haley, the city’s Zero Waste manager.
But officials stress that the city can only do so much to accomplish its waste goals: The real heavy lifting will have to come from average residents (like the very un-average Barneby family, whose story of waste-free living you can find below). Haley believes that it’s not just about keeping waste from the landfill, but also about keeping waste from becoming waste in the first place. “What we see at the consumer level is just the tip of the wasteberg,” he says (and yes—he really did use the term “wasteberg”). “What people buy really matters. It’s about the highest and best use of materials, and reducing and reusing what we have. It’s about individual responsibility.”
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of San Francisco.