Thursday, November 12, 2009

The Mother Ship Has Landed

Tossing orange peels, coffee grounds and grease-stained pizza boxes in the trash is now against the law in San Francisco, and could lead to a fine.

The nation's most comprehensive mandatory composting and recycling law was put into effect last week. It requires all businesses, restaurants, and residences including apartment buildings to separate their garbage into three separate color-coded bins: blue for recycling, green for compost and black for trash. The purpose is to cut greenhouse gas emissions and send nothing to landfills or incinerators by 2020. Food scraps, plant clippings and other organic materials that go into landfills take up costly space and decompose to form methane, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Seattle passed a law in 2003 requiring people to have a compost bin but, unlike San Francisco, it did not mandate that all food waste go in there.

Those who fail to properly sort their refuse will receive warnings which, if unheeded, will result in fines: $100 for individual residences and small businesses which generate less than a cubic yard of refuse per week, and $500 for larger businesses. I wonder who will be assigned the task of going through people's garbage to ensure that it is properly sorted. Maybe the Meter Nazis Parking Police could pursue second careers as trash investigators.

A June 2008 report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a group focused on environmentally sound community development, said a zero waste approach is one of the fastest, cheapest and most effective ways to protect the climate. Garbage trucks take food scraps to the Organics Annex which is already processing about half of the city's food waste, more than 500 tons per day. The compost is then sold to Bay Area farms and vineyards.

"We hear a lot about climate change, and what we can do and should do, and what's happening in Congress," said Jared Blumenfeld, City Environmental Officer. "But people want to know what they can, practically, do every single day, and composting your food scraps is probably the single most effective thing you can do as a citizen in the United States today."

We have duly been issued our very own little composting bin which is a bit like a house pet because it's small, hungry, and hangs around the kitchen, although I haven't named it yet. The mother ship sits outside, waiting for all her babies to come home.


Bob said...

we already compost. makes great soil amendments for gardening. The PITA about recycling for us is that we don't have city pickup, so we have to store it and make a run to the drop-off occasionally - which means the CO the car emits during that special run offsets some of the savings from recycling. But it is a net gain, I think.

My last flight overseas, the airline offered an extra fee that would pay for the carbon emission I contributed by flying. Europe, by and far, is ahead of us here. (I didn't pay the offset, though - I wasn't sure how to handle it as my company bought the ticket.)

nick said...

We've had those three bins for some time in Belfast, except that like Seattle we don't recycle our food waste yet. But I think that's coming. It's about time something useful was done with the 30% of all produced food that the UK chucks out.

Even better for the planet of course would be a mass conversion to vegetarianism.

secret agent woman said...

Cool! I have a compost bin already, but it's neat that the city is geting into it. I also have one of those big recycling bins, but have been warned not to put another pizza box into it. For some readon they don't like that here.

Molly said...

Maybe your city fathers could talk to our city father! We've always recycled wherever we've lived, and since coming here we compost everything possible. So our trash is minimal. In general though, people around here couldn't be arsed! Mostly older folks. Their attitude seems to be that they pay for garbage service and they'll put as much as they darn well please out there! True they don't pick up recycling, you have to take it there yourself. That's not such a hardship when you consider the benefits to the environment!

Good for San Francisco---though I wouldn't want to be one of the recycling enforcers!

Lone Grey Squirrel said...

This is great news. i would love it if my city would do the same. In fact, you have inspired me to not wait for my city and go do composting my self!

the walking man said...

Has SF now capped the landfill ad started a methane recovery program. Methane has it's uses as well. i think that as a resident of SF you should get compost for free before any is sold to any commercial enterprise.

Our idea of environmental responsibility in Detroit is not using plastic garbage bags, we simply throw the loose trash in the bin and let the wind blow it to Canada.

TechnoBabe said...

This is pretty much the way every city will be. You wrote this post with information and threw in some humor. I notice that we have very small amount of trash to be picked up compared to most of the neighbors.

thailandchani said...

I'm probably one of the rare ones who just doesn't see any point in legislating this stuff. If people want to do it and feel drawn to do it, they should. If not.. well.

Sacramento has the same policy. We have to separate the recycling from the kitchen garbage. We're not supposed to get rid of broken household appliances, clothes or other "stuff" in the garbage or the recycle which has just led to a lot of illegal dumping all over the city.

I've seen mattresses, furniture, bags of clothes, broken TVs and old computer monitors dumped behind the local Target on a regular basis.


Laura Lee said...

Wow! Leave it to good ol' California, and especially SF to be so ahead of everyone in the whole 'be a better human' thing. I'm a born 'n raised Cali girl, and I miss it so much. Oregon is not bad as choix deux but... Dorothy said it! There's No Place Like Home.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Yes, composting is great for growing things, but when I lived in North Carolina, there was a farm across town which emitted the most sickening stench from silage. It doesn't seem as if there would be that much difference between compost and silage except that I believe the latter is composed mainly of corn.


Maybe after 2012, everyone will choose vegetarianism as part of the widespread enlightenment which may occur. (Or not.)


Perhaps your municipality is concerned for your health. While pizza is yummy, it does not possess too many notably healthy ingredients besides lycopene.


Nor would I, especially if they take my advice and employ the parking meter people who are generally loathed anyway.


A composting squirrel would be a force to be reckoned with. So many acorns, so little time...


Ah, ya gotta love Detroit. It sounds subversive (and brilliant) wafting it all to Canada. As for your moral outrage that San Franciscans do not get it free before it is sold abroad, I can assure you that nothing in San Francisco is free. If they could tax the air we breathe, they would.


It sounds as if you're seriously recycling if you have little trash, or that your neighbors are terribly wasteful. Dividing the waste is a nuisance but I do believe it's for a good cause, and will get easier.


It will be interesting to see if they can enforce these laws. I think that most people are basically uninterested in doing what is difficult or unpleasant unless there is immediate benefit to themselves. The thought of a greener planet is probably a bit nebulous for them. I often see mattresses dumped on street corners here, and doubt it will change.

Laura Lee,

Well, if San Francisco were really determined to encourage us to be better humans, they would do something about the rude, aggressive drivers. I'm just saying.

PeterAtLarge said...

I'm delighted to hear that San Francisco is leading the way again. Maybe LA will follow, in its own sweet time. I like that the compost bins are a part of the deal. We have composted, in the past, but bins like these would have encouraged us to stick with it. I'd agree with Chani if it wasn't clear that we could all use the help to do the right thing.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...


That is fantastic.

...500 tons? Daily? WOW. Are we wasteful or WHAT!

So glad to see this change.

Scarlett & Viaggiatore

Anonymous said...

The problem with putting food waste in outdoor compost bins is that they attract rats. Which we found out, to our dismay.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Except, perhaps, for those of us who enjoy doing the flagrantly wrong thing.

The kitchen bin is a sweet little creature; it just sits there like a baby bird with its mouth open, waiting for worms.


Well, I didn't waste 500 tons all by myself, you know. Just so we're clear.


I can't wait. We'll probably have giant raccoons in the garbage area, too. They are immensely clever and can even work combination locks, I think.

Jocelyn said...

This is SOOO cool. I know it's a huge shift for everyone, but it's such a necessary, smart thing. We have very little trash each week, thanks to recycling and composting. Then I go visit my singleton sister, who doesn't compost, and her garbage out-take is twice our family of four's.

RE: who goes through the garbage, I think the garbage collection agency is periodically put on the spot and gets fined if the cross-section examined has illicit materials (such as coffe grounds!). That is, with pressure put on the garbage companies, they will then put pressure on y'all.

Jo said...

Wow! I learn something every day. I think one solution to the problem is for people to eat all their food, and to learn to take smaller portions so there is less wastage. We have become consumers of "supersize" portions, which is so wasteful, and with the world running out of food, there should not be any left over, if at all possible.

Food is marketed in huge markets and people buy things in bulk, and then it goes stale and cannot be used. Everyone should shop like an Englishman, and buy their food daily, according to their needs for the day.

North Americans have become overfed, with too much plentiful food, while other nations starve. There should be a balance. "Wasted food" is a term that should not be in our vocabulary.

Wanderlust Scarlett said...


Hearts, you are so far ahead of the game on this one that you could have been on the steering committee to get it started.

You don't waste anything that I'm aware of; you're one of those rare ladies who treasure all of your resources.

Scarlett & Viaggiatore

riseoutofme said...

We seem to be ahead of the States on the whole recycling effort ... We have 2 bins put out on alternate weeks ... one for recyclables (paper, cardboard, plastics, tin ... anything that has a triangle on the back) and the other for landfill. We also have a smaller bin for waste food ... we never use this as we have the hungry canine .. they don't collect glass but there are centres nearby where we can bring our glass to so thats not a problem. We have a bin full of recyclables every 2 weeks but the landfill rarely gets put out .. we also have a compost bin so that takes care of the flower beds!

With a little thought everyone can do this ...

Maria said...

What a great idea! We already recycle and compost, but if it were mandatory, maybe we could all do it and make a real difference.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


This should be very good fodder in the never-ending sibling rivalry. "I'm a better composter than you are and besides, Mom likes me better." Let me know how that's working out for you and we'll compare notes.


I have often thought how very strange it is that so many people are dieting while others starve, and the rest are stuffing themselves obscenely. It's utterly irresponsible for restaurants to serve such huge and unhealthy portions which doom the generation growing up to a lifetime of obesity, diabetes, heart disease and misery.


Well, that's not exactly true. I never eat the antlers.


I believe that Ireland is way ahead of us in many ways. My nephew and his Irish wife have a farm in County Wicklow where they teach organic gardening and related topics.


Mandatory is probably the key. Most people are unwilling to make the effort unless they have to, but then that goes for nearly everything, not just conservation.

Meggie said...

I wish we got given little compost bins.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


Make your own. Anything will do, a milk carton, a paper bag, anything.

Kim said...

Do the pizza boxes get recyled? We recycle almost everything and only have about 1/2 bag of garbage each week for 2 adults and 2 teenagers, but no place that we have ever lived will let us recycle pizza boxes. Throwing them out drives me crazy.

heartinsanfrancisco said...


No, pizza boxes are supposed to go in the composting bin. Now if only we could get refills on them, we'd really have something.

Thanks for your visit.

On a limb with Claudia said...

*applause* We compost here for our gardens. It's pretty easy. How have you enjoyed it so far?

heartinsanfrancisco said...


That explains your wondrous gardens, of which you have shared pictures on your blog. I love the idea of food we have prepared becoming fertilizer for new food we grow.