Food waste diversion promoted on the street

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Courtesy of BioCycle Magazine

In January 2009, collection trucks hit the streets of San Francisco with a bold message: look more closely at your garbage, because it is primarily made up of resources that should be composted or recycled. There are now about 20 trucks with 3D images of food waste or recyclables displayed on their sides, giving the illusion of glass panels that reveal the vehicles’ contents. Passersby see trucks carrying source separated food waste, or blue bin recyclables, instead of plain “garbage” trucks.

The trucks are part of Norcal Waste System Inc.’s “Recycling Changes Everything” campaign, explains Robert Reed, a spokesperson for the company. Norcal operates Sunset Scavenger and Golden Gate Disposal & Recycling, which are contracted to haul San Francisco’s residential and commercial waste. “The primary impulse of this campaign is to get people to take a moment from their busy day, and take a good look at what they’re throwing away,” says Reed. “As the trucks reveal, it’s not garbage, but mostly cardboard, glass, metal, food scraps, etc., things that should be recycled or composted.”

Promoting source separation and diversion of food waste and recyclables isn’t just good business for Norcal and San Francisco, it benefits the environment too, a message that Reed says his company hopes to convey through this campaign. “We are trying to help people understand that recycling and composting are something that people can do every day to help curb climate change, to do something for the environment. The 3D images include an outline of a collection cart, filled with positive imagery of environments we are trying to help protect, such as redwoods and beaches. The cart imagery links everyday actions with broader sustainability.”

Norcal has used photographs in other successful outreach campaigns, such as cart hangers distributed last year. They included pictures of what goes into each bin, and what those materials will be recycled into — paper becoming new cereal boxes, banana peels becoming compost for vineyards, etc. “We are dealing with 27 languages in San Francisco, and have found that photographs are the best way to communicate about composting and recycling,” he adds. “We call it ‘the other international language.’”

Norcal also has “Artists in Residence” at its transfer station, a program that’s been active for the past 18 years. The art is made exclusively from trash and recyclables, with art openings held four times a year, typically attracting over a thousand people, says Reed. “The art is quite stunning, and is later given to public institutions, like schools, libraries and hospitals. We also have a sculpture garden at the transfer station, which shows off some of our artists’ work. Highlighting garbage and recycling in artistic and unusual ways have been extremely effective at improving awareness and diversion.”

NEW FRONTIER: APARTMENTS
The City and County of San Francisco rolled out its residential three-stream (compostables, commingled recyclables and trash) curbside program as a pilot in 1999, and finished expanding the service citywide to all 150,000 households in 2004 (130,000 single-family and 20,000 buildings with five or fewer units). With the economy down, and subsequently a decline in tourism, San Francisco’s overall waste tonnages have dropped. “Material going to the landfill has fallen from about 2,100 tons/day to 1,700 or 1,600 tons/day,” says Reed. “However, the tonnage of blue bin recyclables has held steady at about 650 tons/day, and the tonnage from green carts has continued steady growth to 400 tons/day.” Materials collected in green carts are all food residuals, including fish and meat, food-soiled paper (including waxed cardboard) and yard trimmings.

There are several reasons that green cart volumes continue to climb. One aspect is the boost of multifamily apartment buildings now using three-stream collection. Green cart service was first offered to San Francisco’s 7,900 apartment buildings with six or more units in 2001. Today, more than 2,000 apartment buildings are participating in green cart service for food waste collection. Servicing multifamily buildings has long been perceived as a stumbling block in reaching higher rates of residential source separated organics collection, but the City is charging forward. “More than 700 of these apartment buildings have signed up for green carts in the last 12 months,” says Reed. “Building owners and managers are listening to their tenants requests for green carts.”

The City’s Residential Recycling team recruits property management companies and individual buildings to initiate organics collection programs, notes Alexa Kielty, Residential Zero Waste Assistant for the City of San Francisco. “Once we have the commitment, we schedule waste assessments at each building, preferably with the on-site manager,” she says. “Then we walk through the building with the manager to inspect containers, find space for green carts and look for opportunities to reduce garbage and increase recycling. For instance, we inspect chute rooms to see if there is an opportunity to add containers on each floor, to make organics collection and recycling as easy as throwing garbage down the chute.”

Kielty recommends that other cities interested in servicing multifamily units first view apartments as an opportunity for capturing more organic material, and then work closely with property management companies to convince them that the service will potentially improve their bottom line. “Overall, our success can be attributed to an increased willingness on the part of property managers,” says Kielty. “They can save money on their rates by switching to organics collection, and their tenants are putting more pressure on them to set up the service. Also, they have heard that mandatory organics collection and recycling is coming soon, within the year.”

PATH TO ZERO WASTE: MANDATORY SEPARATION
San Francisco has a proposed mandatory ordinance for source separated collection of organics and recyclables, which would be required of all generators, both residential and commercial. “This may be the first ordinance in the U.S. mandating source separation of food scraps for composting collection, requiring participation by everyone, including property managers setting up programs for tenants,” says Jack Macy, Commercial Zero Waste Coordinator for the City of San Francisco. The ordinance has been introduced by Mayor Gavin Newsom to the Board of Supervisors, which is expected to vote on the measure in the next few months. “We see this ordinance as critical for San Francisco to achieve its 75 percent diversion goal by 2010, and help us move toward zero waste,” continues Macy. “If everyone in San Francisco participated and separated all the materials that are accepted in our recycling and composting programs, we could potentially achieve 90 percent diversion. We are currently at 70 percent citywide diversion.”

Organics diversion rates are increasing, which can in part be attributed to San Francisco and Norcal targeting residential and commercial accounts with little or no green cart service, says Kevin Drew, Residential and Special Projects Recycling Coordinator for the City of San Francisco. “The commercial sector gets a drastically discounted rate for green and blue carts, and residents have no additional charge for the service, so ratepayers have been getting the message,” he explains. “Calls for service have increased steadily over the past year, from tenants, property owners and building managers who are concerned about either climate change or rates, or both.”

As far as targeting the commercial sector, the City has stepped up its outreach as well. “We have visited over 3,000 restaurants and other food establishments since June 2007 to ensure that they are not using styrofoam, and instead are using compostable or recyclable food ware, as accepted in our programs,” says Macy. This commercial outreach in turn raises diversion rates. Drew explains, “Making sure that businesses use compostable or recyclable to-go containers supports diversion in the homes and offices of patrons.”

Norcal’s new trucks, with 3D photos of food waste or recyclables, are the company’s latest promotion in San Francisco, but are part of a collective effort to be a Zero Waste city by 2020. “Our message is ‘Please Recycle and Compost,’” says Reed. “This message competes with dominant messages of consumption and wastefulness. We’re communicating about recycling and composting, about the importance of these actions for the environment, and our message is gaining traction across San Francisco.”

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