As American cities go, San Francisco is very good at recycling, we just aren't as good as we think we are — and most people still haven't gotten the memo that pizza boxes belong in the compost bin. The trade war with China, Recology's shady dealings, and the prevalence of non-recyclable plastic all contribute to a green delusion that we're keeping most of our waste out of landfills.
You may have seen the dire story two months back about how China had stopped buying America's plastic from recycling centers, causing a lot of it to end up in landfills despite consumers' best intentions. Now SF Weekly looks at the issue specifically through a local lens, via Recology, and where our green- and blue-bin stuff actually ends up.
You'll be heartened to hear that one of the biggest issues that causes recyclable material to go into dumps — "contamination" caused through mixed recycling like grease and coffee stains on paper, and sticky food residue on plastic — is less of an issue for SF than other places. A Recology rep tells SF Weekly that our city is "internationally known" for producing bales of recyclable paper, plastic, and aluminum with less than 0.5% contamination — a level that most cities consider impossible to achieve. This means our recyclables are more competitive to be sold to mills in Indonesia and elsewhere, now that China won't take them any more.
When it comes to glass, much of our city's recycled bottles and jars head to a facility in San Leandro that cleans it all, and then out to Modesto where it gets melted down and turned into new glass containers — a full-circle process that the Weekly says can take as little as six weeks.
Also in the good news column: We're getting better at composting. The city now composts more material than it recycles — 800 tons per day vs. 700 tons — and a new transfer station that opened in December will allow for as much as 1,000 tons of compost material per day.
Plastic is still the biggest culprit for our recycling woes, though, and the San Francisco Department of the Environment has adopted a new slogan of "Reduce/Reuse," given that so much our plastic can't be recycled at all. As department spokesman Peter Galotta tells the Weekly, the message they want to get out to consumers is that they should be refusing to purchase items in plastic containers in order to reduce this amount of plastic going to landfills.
The other bad news: A much ballyhooed figure of several years ago, touting that San Francisco was diverting 80% of its trash away from landfills, turns out to have been false, as you may have heard. Recology fudged their numbers to include completely non-recyclable construction waste, and in reality, we're now diverting about 60% of our waste — a figure that SF Weekly says has been flat for about a decade.
As the Examiner reported in late 2017, SF has been way behind schedule in reaching its 2020 "Zero Waste" goal, originally announced by the city in 2002.