Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Zero Waste greetings from California

So here I am, thousands of miles away from home, following in the footsteps of Jeremy Irons and his recent movie Trashed.  Except, I've not ended up in Hollywood.  I'm somewhere far more exciting! Yep, as part of this year's international Zero Waste conference, I'm 'on location' in San Francisco, visiting Recycle Central, which was featured in the documentary, and exploring how the city and county of San Francisco is so advanced in its journey towards Zero Waste.

And that trash truck that you see there, is one of the few that can be seen heading for landfill, taking less than 5% of waste from Recology's recycling MuRF/Recycling Depot, after the paper, plastic, cardboard and cans have been baled for processing.   Overall, thanks to its well-streamed organics and recycling facilities, San Francisco's diversion rate from landfill is 80%, not only placing it high on the Zero Waste league table, but well on its way to its goal of 100% Zero Waste by 2020.

And that's Zero Waste to landfill or incineration!

Now that's a very high ambition indeed and gives many of the best Zero Waste goals of even the UK a run for their money,  but judging by what I've seen on my first day, I would bet my bottom dollar (see how I threw in that local colloquialism there) that San Francisco is going to achieve it, or at least get pretty damn close.

And this stems from the fundamental belief that the rubbish generated by San Francisco's visitors, businesses and residents is too valuable to bury or burn and has much higher economic, social and environmental value being reused or recycled as a resource.   Consequently, San Francisco's municipal Environment Department and business community have overcome many of the perceived barriers and hurdles, working together to introduce alternative solutions that benefit their zero waste agenda and its local community.

As we drove away from Recycle Central yesterday, these solutions were pretty easy to spot, with the piles of demolition rubble that now has to be processed for construction reuse instead of being buried in landfill.  Further afield, but close to the city, organics (including all forms of food waste) are also diverted out of the landfill thanks to composting and AD facilities, creating a product that is now highly in demand by local vineyards, farms and recreation facilities.

But to achieve this, high levels of participation are needed and during our tour around the very popular Fisherman's Wharf, it became clear how re-education, attitudes and the right financial leverage tools are helping to realise San Francisco's Zero Waste culture, especially within the business sector.

Take Scoma's Fish Restaurant for instance.  According to one of its executive chef's Kelly, who gave us a behind-the-scenes tour, it now diverts 97% of its waste from landfill, saving an estimated $1100 per month. 

Scoma's is one the top 20 grossing restaurants in the United States, with 170 staff on its books, serving up to 2000 people a day.  Its corporate philosophy is heavily linked to sustainability and embraced by its staff and thanks to the supporting waste collection infrastructure, diverting restaurant waste from landfill has become very easy.

As Kelly says "it's not hard, it's just using a different coloured garbage can".

But businesses in Fisherman's Wharf don't just stop at recycling goals.  There are some great examples of waste prevention too, and one of these is the lead being shown by fish supplier Two X Sea, which has redesigned their distribution packaging from disposable cardboard boxes to reusable hotel pans.

Owner Kenny Belov took us through how his company's one off investment of $8,000 in the streamlined reusable system, which integrates with the storage facilities of his customers, not only saves his company huge amounts of money from being wasted through disposable packaging, but it also saves his customers time and cash too as they don't need to process or repackage the fish at the other end.

While all this is happening 'behind-the-scenes' in Fisherman's Wharf, there is also more visible change on the streets too.

Our guide for the day, Lisa Lukacs, a Zero Waste consultant who's working closely with the wharf, demonstrated how the port authorities are changing their management of recycling through the application of the Big Belly solar recycling bins on Pier 45.

With facilities for passers-by to fully separate compostables and recycling, the system also has a solar-powered compacting system to manage the residual trash, alerting the authorities electronically when it's ready to be emptied.  With a leasing agreement of $230 per month, this method has already demonstrated a reduction in labour costs associated with emptying regular bins.

The day's tour ended with a presentation from San Francisco's municipal environment department, which addressed a whole range of topics from the 10c single use bag charge, the significance of the food hierarchy in diverting usable food to the San Francisco food banks and the promotion of home composting.  Also covered were the success of the Green Apartment programme as well as links to schools.

As the county progresses further down the path towards zero waste, there will now be a focus on extended producer responsibility, including redesigning waste out of the system and greater financial contributions for disposal.

You can find more about department's Zero Waste programme here at www.sfenvironment.org.

Of course, a day of introductions to San Francisco's Zero Waste initiatives wouldn't have been complete without a screening of Trashed at the Aquarium of the Bay, which is itself closely connected to the ZW goals.  The avid applause and whoop-whoops from the audience at seeing the achievements of San Francisco featured in the documentary were entirely appropriate, enjoyable and very well deserved.

It was inspiring enough to have seen these examples from afar as an audience member in the UK, but to have witnessed them in person has been even more of an eye-opener to the opportunities that are available to work towards zero waste efficiently and effectively.

There are great lessons to be learned from San Francisco and over the next few days week, I hope to find out more as well as discover news of what's happening from across the world at the zero waste conference that is bringing together experts from countries that include the US, Sweden, Italy, Wales, Brazil, Columbia, India, Bhutan, the Philippines, Italy, Canada and Australia.

It will be a real privilege to find out about some of the best practice from across the world and also share my experience of The Rubbish Diet with them too.  My thanks go to the Zero Waste Alliance UK and Zero Waste International Alliance for providing me with this fantastic opportunity.

More news will be shared soon.



Fr. Peter Doodes said...

Brilliant news! We all look forward to your report.


Evil Edna said...

cool report, so if San Fran re usess most of it's rubbish what does it do with old Charmed episodes?EE

Danda said...

Whoa, finally you are there, so lucky you!!! It sounds like very exciting!!!
San Francisco is a great example for all the world, I heard of it by the words of P. Connett. So take note of all the inspiring practices you will see and then, please, bring them to the other side of the ocean, we will be so grateful!
Thank you so much for your report!!! Enjoy your days there and please send my greetings to my zero waste Italian colleagues! ;)
P.s.: I absolutely need to watch Trashed!!! :)

Hazel said...

Wow, sounds fantastic.

I still can't get my head around a whole city being zero waste though. In the household, much of reducing waste is about changing buying practices. Assuming that even in SF not everyone buys only recyclable/compostable products and packaging....what happens to plastic film? And polystyrene? Or am I just being very dim...

Almost Mrs Average said...

Thank you all - I'm very late in getting back to the blog. Apologies for that.

You made me smile and chuckle when I saw the emails come through.

Hazel - the majority of stuff is recycled but polystyrene is still a problem. They are not zero waste yet though...they have a 80% recycling & composting rate and are working with businesses to reduce waste through their business processes and reduce the remaining materials.

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