The zero waste race between San Francisco and San Jose.

It’s the tale of two cities in an eco-friendly competition of sorts.

San Francisco, according to a recent article in the on-line New York Times, already considered one of the most effective recycling cities in the country, has enacted new recycling and mandatory composting rules to improve their already impressive 72% diversion of waste from landfills.  This action is part of a plan to get to zero landfill waste by 2020.

Likewise, San Jose is aggressively going for zero waste.  According to a presenter at a recent workshop I attended at the Clean Tech Open, San Jose “recycles more waste than any large city in the nation.”  It is obvious that they are doing quite well, but  there are some conflicts to this bold claim.  According to a published memorandum to the SJ Transportation and Environment Dept dated 11-24-08, San Jose currently diverts 62% of its waste from landfills.  They have a goal of 75% by 2013 and 100% by 2022 according to the city’s Zero Waste Strategic Plan.  This a great and aggressive goal, but not as good as San Francisco’s.  Hmmm, perhaps San Jose doesn’t consider a city to be “large” unless it is one of the top ten. (San Jose 10th largest city by population in the U.S., San Francisco is 13th.)

Both cities are performing at a level far superior to much of the nation.  For comparison, according to the EPA 2007 msw fact sheet, the nation as a whole, in 2007 recovered only 33.4% through recycling or composting.

San Francisco’s new ordinances may seem aggressive, but there is a moratorium on levying the fines until 2011.  For now, notes will be left when violations occur with follow-up when needed on repeat offenses.  The intent is to change behavior, until it becomes part of the norm.  But they are serious.  They are talking about waste management leaving a note if they found you threw orange peels or coffee grounds in the landfill waste bin instead of the green waste bin!

Back in July 2008, when Mayor Gavin Newsom, first proposed the changes, he noted that San Francisco had doubled its recycling rate from 1996 to 2008, but acknowledged it will take time to win over hearts and minds.

“People are used to doing things a certain way. And when you change that, they say it can’t be done. Well, we’ve proved them wrong.” – Gavin Newsom

“People don’t knowingly want to waste,” Environment Department Director Jared Blumenfeld said. “At the moment, we have a missed opportunity.  Overnight we could be at 92 percent if everything people are throwing away that could be reused or recycled actually was.”

I have anecdotal evidence of that opportunity here my home.  Over the last eight months, we have really gotten serious about separating out our recyclable and compostable items.  We used to have a stuffed full garbage can at the end of the week.  Now, the amount of landfill waste remaining is so small that some weeks, I don’t even bother to take the garbage can to the curb.

Back in San Jose, they do have plans going on several fronts.  Here’s the areas where I found links to actionable programs (Source: San Jose Zero Waste Home Page):

Commercial Programs

Commercial Program

Redesign of commercial program will allow capture of more recyclables and compostables, as well as greater service and rate equity for businesses.


Residential Programs

Residential Program

New contracts will provide opportunities to implement program enhancements to capture more materials and compost food waste. See Organics Diversion

Okay, San Jose.  Good ideas, good progress.  But San Francisco is beating you right now and with their target goals.  They have thrown down the gauntlet, raising the bar yet again.  What’s your next move?

What’s happening in your city?  Got a great story to tell?  Want to air your city’s dirty laundry?  Let me know!

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2 responses to “The zero waste race between San Francisco and San Jose.

  1. Yay for the Bay Area. It’s easy when you live here to forget that not every place is like this. One thing I like about your blog, Chad, is that you hear from people all over. I hope people share their stories!

  2. SF rules – thank you for putting it so clearly, Chad!

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