Expert Voices: Melanie Nutter, Director of San Francisco Department of the Environment

San Francisco recently won the Waste Management category at the inaugural C40 & Siemens City Climate Leadership Awards. Here the City’s Director of the Department of the Environment discusses the secrets behind the Zero Waste Program’s success.

On the path to zero waste

In the 1980s, before the term “zero waste” was even heard of, San Francisco was on a mission to reduce landfill disposal with the launch of a curbside recycling program. In the late 1990s, San Francisco became the first city in the nation to start a large-scale food collection composting program. In 2007, our City took another step and mandated construction and demolition recycling, and two years later, our City went even further by implementing a policy of mandatory recycling and composting for all residents and businesses.

Thanks to strong political leadership, progressive waste reduction policies, and extensive education and outreach to residents and businesses, San Francisco diverts 80 percent of its discards from the landfill, one of the highest diversion rates in North America. Recycling and composting are now second nature in San Francisco. But we aren’t ready to stop there — we have set the goal to achieve zero waste, or sending nothing to the landfill or incineration, by the year 2020.

San Francisco’s success at progressing toward zero waste is based on the simple concept of making recycling and composting convenient for residents and businesses alike. Through our easy-to-use three bin system, each resident and business has a blue bin for recyclables, a green bin for compostables, and a black bin for landfill-bound material.

San Francisco Three Carts City Skyline  Hi Res

We couldn’t have seen our success to-date without the efforts of our community at large. Everyone in the city is helping us send less material to the landfill.

Our residents have taken on composting with vigor, knowing that their coffee grounds, banana peels, and even milk cartons are being made into nutrient-rich compost, which is in high demand from local farmers. And thanks to extensive education about recycling and composting in schools, parents often find themselves asking their kids whether that greasy pizza box goes in the compost or recycling (it goes in the compost!).

Recycling and composting are also the norm for San Francisco businesses. From restaurants, to hotels, to office buildings, San Francisco's recycling and composting program is helping business divert most of their waste while saving money and resources.

The City’s green jobs training program, called Environment Now, has been integral to expanding recycling and composting throughout the city. The team consists of 20 San Francisco residents from diverse backgrounds with a broad range of experience and skills, all sharing a passion for the environment. They draw on these skills to conduct multi-lingual outreach to encourage businesses and residents to recycle and compost more.

And thanks to the City’s zero waste grant program, even our community organizations are helping reduce material sent to the landfill. For over two decades, the City of San Francisco has given grants to local nonprofit organizations to help increase recycling and composting. From community composting workshops, to implementing composting and recycling at local events, to collecting textile clothing, these organizations are helping our city achieve zero waste from the grassroots level.

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As part of the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, we are encouraging other cities to join us on the road to zero waste. Already, hundreds of cities around the world have established comprehensive recycling and composting programs, including most of the San Francisco Bay Area, and many have established zero waste goals. Collectively, we can work with our communities to conserve resources, reduce greenhouse gases, and pave the way toward a sustainable future.

Visit San Francisco’s Zero Waste program website for more information.

This is the fourth in a series of 10 posts highlighting the winners of the C40 & Siemens City Climate Leadership Awards. Click here to read more about the Awards and the 2013 Winners.