Tag Archives: zero waste

Back to zero (waste)

The pantry

Our pantry (it feels weird to post a picture of our kitchen shelves)

Our zero-waste effort suffered some setbacks when I was injured. In general I’d argue that once it’s established, zero waste doesn’t require additional effort or time, and it’s certainly cheaper. The transition is a hassle—so if I were going to do it again I’d do it on a replacement basis, where when we ran out of one thing, we replaced it with a less wasteful alternative—but whatever weird stuff you do, once it’s familiar, acquires the easy grace of any other habit.

But Matt didn’t have the same shopping habits and haunts that I did when I was incapacitated. There was a lot of takeout, and although takeout pizza boxes are compostable, even our kids won’t eat pizza forever. Moreover, the in-home physical therapist who came to work with me twice a week brought a collection of disposable medical supplies (gloves, bandages, thermometer covers). And we certainly weren’t going to turn down any of the gifts of food or anything else people brought us, no matter how they were packaged. We were just grateful to have them.

The fridge (the empty shelf usually holds lunchbags)

Our fridge (the empty shelf usually holds lunchbags)

Now that I’m more of an independent person again, I’ve been slowly rebuilding the zero waste muscles along with the ones in my leg. Despite the setbacks, though there were two big gains. The first is that our daughter changed preschools to a Japanese immersion program. Although this preschool is crazy with the art projects (and with music and dance; it is totally awesome), unlike the old preschool they eschew stuff like foam stickers and stick primarily with recyclable materials. There is an occasional plastic bead necklace, but overall our weekly landfill haul no longer has a lot of art piling up.

Our cheese shop is delighted to use our containers for hummus, crackers and cheese. All we had to do was ask.

The local deli is delighted to use our containers for hummus, crackers and cheese. All we had to do was ask.

The second is that I discovered there is a way to recycle a limited amount of soft plastics in San Francisco. I have mixed feelings about plastics “recycling.” Even though I know better, it is easy to grow complacent about the fact that we can chuck a fair bit of plastic into the recycling bin. I know full well that it’s not really being recycled, but there are days when I’d prefer not to think about that. On the other hand, there are some things, like my contact lens solution bottles, for which there are no easy substitutes. I’m pretty sure that it’s better to down-cycle those plastic bottles into fleece than to throw them into a landfill. I try to be mindful and not go nuts with it.

In hindsight it astonishes me that we once used plastic bags at the farmers' market. They give you hefty (unannounced) discounts if you bring your own bags.

In hindsight it astonishes me that we once used plastic bags at the farmers’ market. They give hefty (unannounced) discounts if you bring your own bags.

So anyway, Cole Hardware in San Francisco recycles a small amount of soft plastics for members of their buyer club (free, and worth joining for the great coupons, which I used to build up our collection of pantry jars). There are restrictions in terms of amount and condition. Bags must be clean and free of food waste—otherwise they’d attract vermin—and you can only bring one small bagful per visit. I called and asked them about it, and they are sending them to the one place I’ve ever heard of that turns plastic bags into more plastic bags. That is an interesting business. Recycled plastic bags, despite being a more sustainable alternative than virgin plastic bags, are not very popular. Thanks to the many colors of bags that are sent for recycling, the end product is always a brown or grey plastic. Unfortunately people and businesses who buy plastic bags typically like them to be clear or white. Recycling is often one of those business concepts for which there is more supply than demand.

Weird bulk stuff is where Rainbow Grocery really shines. Nearby are things like bulk honey, vinegar and fresh pasta.

Weird bulk stuff (miso, tahini, almond butter) is where Rainbow Grocery really shines. Nearby are things like bulk honey, vinegar and fresh pasta.

I am no fan of soft plastics, but I’m glad that they’re doing this. We occasionally get packages wrapped in plastic, or buy something with a surprise plastic wrapper inside a paper or glass container, and being able to save those for our next visit to the hardware store feels better than just tossing them.

This is the bulk section at one of our local grocery stores (smaller than most of them, but useful in a pinch).

This is the bulk section at one of our local grocery stores. I had never really noticed it before this year.

At this point we have gotten most of the easy stuff under control. We shop in the bulk section with reusable grocery bags and jars and get most of our produce sticker-free at the farmers’ market. We compost what we can, recycle what we can, and with the help of the Cole Hardware soft plastics recycling program, have shrunk our landfill waste to whatever mystery-material junk our kids pick up at school or off the sidewalk, plus a few synthetic rubber bands. Food-related waste, it turns out, is pretty simple, and our kitchen has never been more uncluttered. Don’t buy takeout or processed foods, and when in doubt, have a salad. We put a pot of (bulk) beans in the oven every Saturday morning, throw every leftover vegetable in the fridge into a soup on Sunday night, and divide them both out over the week’s dinners. That right there is the reason zero waste is the world’s most effective diet, and also why it can be done on less money than a California family can get in food stamps. Unfortunately people who really live on food stamps rarely have the kinds of shopping options or resources to store fresh foods that we do. But given that we do, it seems ungracious not to use them.

This is part of Rainbow Grocery's bulk bath and body section, which definitely makes life easier.

This is part of Rainbow Grocery’s bulk bath and body section, which definitely makes life easier.

From that point things get harder, even though we buy used when we can. The bathroom is a thorn in my side. We buy soaps and shampoo and conditioner in bulk, but our kids come home with band-aids and we’re still tossing non-compostable dental floss. (I tried to buy a carton of compostable silk floss and got sent a carton of non-compostable non-silk floss. When I complained, the seller refunded our money and told us to keep the carton as an apology. So we are working our way through it.) There are recyclable and compostable toothbrushes and we use those. Tom’s of Maine will recycle their empty toothpaste tubes if you send them back, so we do that too. But there are still dribs and drabs of stuff that trickle through. We are at the point where we’d have to put in a lot more effort for incremental gains, and I wonder whether that is the best use of our time.

Lots of things are available in bulk, once you start looking for them.

Lots of things are available in bulk, once you start looking for them.

The fundamental problem is that we live in a society where waste is the default option. It requires a certain mental effort and thoughtfulness to push through that. When I do there’s usually a lower-cost and lower-effort option, which makes sense. (That could be said of many things, another obvious one being the ostensible point of this blog, which is technically about alternative transportation. But once down that rabbit hole one tends to drift a bit into other counter-cultural stuff–although not yet to Burning Man!) Waste is presented as the default option because it’s a way to sell more stuff. But we don’t have to play along.


Filed under San Francisco, zero waste

Bad hit lit crit: Garbage

One of the few advantages of being stuck at home in bed has been the opportunity to do massive amounts of reading. Sometimes it’s hopeless, because when I’m really doped up even trashy movies go above my head. But I’m getting a little more coherent and have been reading more interesting material, thanks to the San Francisco Public Library’s extensive collection and generous hold policy, and Matt’s willingness to stop by and pick up whatever I’ve ordered. He suggested I write about some of these books and call it Bad Hit Lit Crit. For the name alone I thought it was worth it.

Garbology (Edward Humes)

Picking up (Robin Nagle)

Rubbish! (William Rathje and Cullen Murphy)

So this year has turned out to be less about bikes and more about waste. That’s primarily because I won’t be riding a bike for a few months while I’m recovering from the broken leg. However even while stuck at home I can try to minimize our garbage. It’s harder—every time the physical therapist comes over we end up with a pile of medical waste that goes to the landfill, and the post-injury reliance on takeout dinners isn’t helping matters either—but it’s certainly possible.

Something that has struck me ever since I joined the university zero waste committee is that everyone supports reducing garbage. When I mention my zero waste assignment people immediately tell me that they recycle a lot. That’s only a small part of what I think about when I think about waste reduction but the response is interesting. When I mention that we bike with our kids there’s about a 50-50 chance people will be concerned rather than supportive. But waste reduction is a totally non-controversial idea, even among people who fill up an extra-large garbage bin every week. It’s not obvious to me why. The US is a huge country with a lot of middle-of-nowhere: objectively speaking, it’s not likely we’ll ever run out of room for landfills, and judging by our actions, we have a lot of stuff that we’d like to throw away.  However nobody really seems happy about that.

Garbology, Picking Up, and Rubbish! approach the issue of waste from different perspectives. Garbology discusses the immense volume of waste produced by Americans and attempts to come to grips with how it’s handled. Picking Up follows one woman’s investigation of sanitation in New York City, which ends with her taking a job picking up trash in the city. And Rubbish! reviews the studies of the University of Arizona’s Garbage Project, which sorts through household waste and takes samples of the contents of various landfills. All of these books are fascinating.

There is an urban myth that dealing with garbage is a modern problem, which all of these books make clear is not the case. Despite the former existence of “rag and bone men” and other professions that recycled certain kinds of waste, there is ample anthropological and photographic evidence that waste was a massive and disgusting problem nearly everywhere until well into the 20th century. Garbage filled the streets and gutters of New York over a foot deep, and rubbish dumped into waterways was a persistent problem in multiple municipalities. Landfills are the source of most information about pre-literate societies. Until very recently, the idea of zero waste would have drawn blank stares.

An unnerving point made by all of these books is that despite the invisible nature of garbage collection, most households and businesses would collapse without regular pickup. Municipal sanitation strikes make this point fairly quickly (Picking Up). On average, Americans produce over 7 pounds of garbage per person every day of the year (Garbology). With our recent zero waste efforts our household could last for months if we had our own compost heap, but because we use municipal composting our situation would get ugly quickly without weekly pickup. (When we move, for this reason and others, it will be to a place with a yard.) Without weekly pickup, virtually every home in the US could serve as a case study of hoarders.

The things people throw away can be counter-intuitive. In the face of food shortages, people waste more food, presumably because people stock up more of scarce foods than they can really use (Rubbish!). People who eat repetitive diets waste less food. People throw away empty candy wrappers after Halloween and uneaten candy (still in the wrappers) after Valentine’s Day.  Everyone grossly underestimates how much food they throw away, while simultaneously under-reporting their consumption of processed foods and over-reporting their consumption of produce. Hazardous waste, in the form of personal care products (nail polish), auto care products (oil) and lawn care products (weed killer) makes up a startling large share of ordinary household waste despite efforts to separate it. And very little degrades in a landfill; 50-year-old guacamole will not brown and newspapers remain legible after decades. Waste placed in a landfill is forever.

When I think about what bothers me about waste I realize it is two things: finality and a lack of respect. It takes time, effort and raw materials to create the things we purchase and use. Bringing something home and then throwing it away is disrespectful of the resources used to create it. I find this increasingly distressing when thinking about disposable packaging, which has only one purpose—to carry something from one place to another—and which lasts forever, particularly plastic packaging. Even worse, reusable packaging can easily replace its disposable counterpart. Food waste is even more disturbing; there are hungry people everywhere, and there is no reason to buy more food than we can or should consume.

The lack of respect we show to the things we throw away is equaled by the lack of respect shown to sanitation workers. Despite their enormous contributions to public health, they are often invisible. People prefer not to see them or speak to them. (One exception to that general rule is parents with young children; ever since our son was six months old we have been on a first-name basis with the people who pick up our bins thanks to his fascination with trucks.)

The more I learn about garbage the clearer it becomes that nothing really disappears. Things are stored in landfills instead of being stored in our homes but they are still there. It is difficult for me to look at a full garbage can the same way after realizing that everything in it will be around virtually forever, even if I can no longer see it. And given the quantity of things we throw away, by volume, waste is probably the greatest product of our society.

Waste is rarely something that we’re charged for directly, but it is not costless. There are still places where stores provide “free” bags although San Francisco is no longer one of them. Once I started shopping with reusable bags, the costs of packaging became evident: I could buy a pound of salad greens in bulk for $6 or a quarter-pound of salad greens in a plastic clamshell for $5. The first time I bought soap in bulk I realized that I’d been rooked for years: 20 ounces of organic dish soap in an old repurposed vinegar bottle cost me $1.52, while a new plastic bottle of the same soap cost $5 for 12 ounces. Our zero waste efforts reduced our costs because there was less to buy (goodbye, processed food) and because the things we could buy were closer to their original state (and thus cheaper) and because we weren’t paying the invisible costs of packaging. If we were responsible for our own garbage pickup costs (it is illegal for San Francisco landlords to pass garbage costs on to renters) we could save even more by switching to the smallest possible garbage can. Packaging costs invisible money at purchase and visible money in weekly garbage pickup costs. Avoiding packaging saves not only those costs, but the costs of buying things spontaneously that we have no need for and would ultimately throw away.

More important than the financial savings for me, however, is the greater sense of peace with how we are living. Although I can’t necessarily pinpoint why, throwing things away feels uncomfortable and somehow wrong. Now we rarely fill up the small garbage can under the kitchen sink in a week, even with our recent reliance on takeout. Some weeks we’re equally unlikely to fill the even smaller recycling bin.  Those are good weeks. Now that I understand that away is not gone, generating less waste feels important. The things we have left in our wake have historically been things I would not want to be remembered by—crumpled plastic bags are an ugly legacy. Nevertheless, in the long term, both people and societies are known primarily by what they place in landfills. When I think about that, I want what we leave behind to have both meaning and purpose.


Filed under zero waste

Zero waste: Getting to zero

One of Matt's lunches: green onion pancakes, beans, orange

One of Matt’s lunches: green onion pancakes, beans, orange

I have mentioned, off and on, that in the wake of my visit to the dump we have been attempting to move our household toward zero waste. Apparently, like the biking, this is now a happening thing. (Since when am I tuned into the zeitgeist?) The City and County of San Francisco has the same zero waste goal, scheduled for 2020.

People approach zero waste in different ways. The easiest definition of zero-waste is to send nothing into the landfill. There is sometimes an assumption that substituting recyclable packaging is fine. I didn’t make that assumption. Evidently I like to make things difficult for myself.

This is a pretty typical haul from the cheese shop: hummus, salad cheese, crackers.

This is a pretty typical haul from the cheese shop: hummus, salad cheese, crackers.

I’ve since learned that we started somewhat ahead of the average American household. We swapped paper towels out for rags long ago and have always used cloth napkins and reusable lunch containers. But we now shop exclusively with cloth bags and our own glass jars, and we have become the kind of people who bring our own tableware to restaurants that use disposables. None of these changes was especially difficult, although it felt weird to do something different at first.

I go to the cafeteria once every two weeks, but my plate is recognized nonetheless.

I go to the cafeteria once every two weeks, but my plate is recognized nonetheless.

Zero waste efforts make you instantly recognizable. When I walk into the office cafeteria with my china plate, the sandwich guy immediately starts heating up falafel. When I go by the local cheese shop, the owner waves (“Look, it’s the woman who brings her own beeswax wrappers! On a bike!”) It can feel a little like the over-examined life. Mostly it’s good, though.

Sending as little as possible to the landfill (in San Francisco, the black bin) is a given in a zero waste household. Here in San Francisco, that means all soft plastics are basically out. Although Recology will take rigid plastics in the recycling bin, virtually all “recycled” rigid plastics are down-cycled—they get one more use as lumber or fleece then go directly to the landfill. So we don’t buy those either.

This was a week of landfill-bound waste last month, but it's dropped since then.

This was a week of landfill-bound waste last month, but it’s dropped since then.

Our progress on landfill-bound waste has been pretty dramatic; most weeks, it easily fits into one of the old quart-sized Ziploc bags I keep finding around the house even now. Most of what’s left is preschool foam sticker art (which is being very slowly phased out at our request) and medical waste (e.g. bandages the kids come home with, and my new waste-nemesis, dental floss).

Sustainable preschool art is a continuing battle.

Sustainable preschool art is a continuing battle.

After my visit to Recology, I also viewed recycling (the blue bin) as a last-resort option. Recycling is energy-intensive at best and involves massive transportation costs because most recycling on the west coast is sent to China. And although paper can be recycled a few times, it degrades to a lower quality product each time–printer paper to paper bags to toilet paper– then it goes to the landfill too. Glass and metal are really recycled, but expensive to melt and reform. But when there appear to be no other alternatives, glass, metal, and low-quality compostable paper are the types of packaging we choose.

Minimizing our recycling has been very hard. We both have office jobs, our kids come home with papers from school, and junk mail is horribly persistent. However we are definitely producing less: on a good week our recycling barely covers the bottom of the blue bin.

Happily, composting (the green bin) is universally acclaimed.  San Francisco has municipal compost pickup so we were already keeping food waste separated, but we started including odds and ends we hadn’t previously realized we could compost (e.g. hair, dryer lint, floor sweepings, waxed-paper butter wrappers). Food-soiled paper is compostable as well. We’re not yet at the point that I begrudge an occasional pizza box.

This is part of the "jar" section of Rainbow Grocery's bulk zone.

This is part of the “jar” section of Rainbow Grocery’s bulk zone: miso, tahini, nut butters, salsa.

However we don’t buy processed food because virtually none of it can be bought in bulk (this is evidently a quick way to lose weight). I find myself getting irritable when manufacturers expect me to take responsibility for dealing with their packaging or things they make that break. I wonder now why I once accepted the responsibility for disposing of whatever a retailer chose to throw at me. And it seems crazy, after only a few months, to buy something in a container that is used only once, to carry an item from one place to another, after which the container is put in a landfill until roughly the end of time. It is something I had never considered before this year, and now it seems like madness.

I'll say this, though: our fridge looks awesome.

I’ll say this, though: our fridge looks awesome.

Overall we’re getting pretty crunchy over here, which honestly has never been a personal aspiration. The homesteading, back-to-the-land ethos of traditional hippies appeals to an urbanist like me about as much as firewalking. So I have been surprised at the response of people when they see me shopping, which is largely fascination. I’m frequently quizzed: “How do you store greens?” (Answer: in a glass jar in the fridge, they keep for over a week that way. Berries, too.) The idea of reducing waste seems universally appealing. I’m not really sure why.

This is not something we can do all at once. The bathroom is still challenging—contact lens solution, toothbrushes, toothpaste, dental floss. Matt and the kids pick up a lot of disposable packaging when they go out solo. There is a lot of meal planning. It’s a change, and change can be hard. Even so I feel no urge to go back to the way we were.


Filed under San Francisco, zero waste

Losing it

Our kids are cute but from day 1 they haven't slept.

Our kids are cute but from day 1 they haven’t slept.

Matt and I are lazy, middle-aged people who have overstuffed our lives. Ever since our son was born, my favorite hobby has been sleeping. We both work full-time jobs, Matt travels extensively for business, I travel somewhat less extensively for business, and we have two kids we adore whose demands swallow our weekends and evenings. This is not a complaint, because we chose these lives, like our jobs, and love our children. But it was not really a shock to find last year that we had started to pack on the pounds.

In 2012, Matt’s repeated trips to China with their endless banquet meals put him near his highest lifetime weight. Also in 2012, I gave up a serious diet Coke habit because it seemed wrong to rely so heavily on a fake food. I never developed a taste for coffee or tea, which means that I have been caffeine-free for over a year. Sadly for me, caffeine is an appetite suppressant. I developed a killer sweet tooth and predictably, gained weight as well. Neither of us was technically overweight, but we were starting to get uncomfortable.

Mirror in the bathroom

Mirror in the bathroom

We both began losing weight at the end of 2012, in part, I suspect, because the Bullitt entered our lives then. With a haul-anything assisted cargo bike we were both willing to attempt riding up hills we’d never tried before, and even with the assist, we were working hard. Plus, that bike is so fast already that it is endlessly tempting to engage in what the good people at Wheelha.us call “time travel,” where you leave late, crank up the assist, pedal like mad, and arrive early. If losing weight using an electric assist is “cheating,” then sign me up for more of that.

Then in January I took a day-long tour of the dump. I came back in shock, and we started trying to become a zero-waste household. (Thankfully, there are role models for a project like this.)

We shrink and they grow.

We shrink and they grow.

There is a lot of talk about the sustainability triple-bottom-line, which suggests that any ecological change will have economic and health effects as well. In our experience this is: true. We bought bikes and sold our only car and saved money and lost some weight and started hanging out with a bunch of cool people. We started trying to reduce our waste because I was horrified when I toured the dump, but we ended up saving money too. Our grocery bills are now less than the California food stamp allotment. We also eat out less than we used to, about once a week, because zero-waste is not compatible with takeout. On top of that, in the last two months both Matt and I have dropped to the lowest adult weights of our lives. Our son, after two years without putting on a pound, finally started gaining weight, and both kids have grown a couple of inches. Everyone in our household needs new pants now. We look like hobos.

2 months in: our weekly landfill load in a quart-sized ziploc (mostly foam stickers from preschool and dental floss). Wild!

2 months in: our weekly landfill load in an old quart-sized ziploc (mostly foam stickers from preschool and dental floss). Wild!

Saving money and losing weight (or in our kids’ case, growing like steroidal weeds) weren’t exactly in our plans, but these are definitely welcome developments. Yippee! So here we are. Our zero-waste effort is like riding our bikes in that there is this unexpected triple-bottom-line, and that surprisingly, it’s made life more fun. It’s unlike riding bikes in that, well, these two things have pretty much nothing else in common as far as I can tell. Yet although we started riding bikes for fun and we started reducing our waste out of dismay, in both cases we ended up in the same place. And both changes have made life better.

[Coming up eventually, because I have been asked: The zero-waste “diet”]


Filed under Bullitt, car-free, electric assist, San Francisco, zero waste

How to get a bike for free

One of these things is not like the other.

One of these things is not like the other.

Recently I visited San Francisco’s waste management center. My university is a shared governance institution (often more in name than in deed) so I am expected to do service. One of my appointments is to the campus-wide Sustainability Committee. I also had to pick a sub-committee, and I asked for Transportation, because I am all about the bikes. But everybody wanted Transportation and I’m pretty junior, so they put me on Zero Waste instead. Anyway, all members of the Zero Waste sub-committee were asked to take a tour of San Francisco’s waste management centers. My first field trip!

San Francisco’s waste management is run by Recology, one of the country’s largest employee-owned cooperatives. San Francisco diverts 80% of its waste from landfills, better than any other municipality in the US and most countries in the world. The city’s goal is to be zero-waste by 2020. The university, which is Recology’s 2nd largest account, is hanging in at 63%. San Francisco has reached this point by implementing aggressive recycling efforts (including prosecuting recycling poachers), creating a hugely successful composting program (in part by instituting a $1,000 minimum fine for throwing compostables in landfill bins), and to a certain extent, by taking advantage of a quirk in how diversion rates are calculated (albeit no more than other cities and countries do).

This is some of the art made from found materials at the transfer station.

This is some of the art made from found materials at the transfer station.

Our tour was absolutely fascinating. Recology does not allow photos of most of its operations, because there are apparently trade secrets in the world of waste management. I realize that the dump is not a traditional tourist attraction, but if you happen to be in San Francisco, it is definitely worth checking out.

Our visit started at the business office, where we picked up hard hats and met the sales staff. “I’m Maria,” said one woman who looked like a supermodel heading down the catwalk. “I handle the city accounts, and I’m a dumpster diver.” From there we headed to the recycling transfer station.

If you have seen Toy Story 3, the recycling transfer station will feel somewhat familiar. Trucks enter the building (1/3 of its power is generated by solar panels on the roof, because that is how Recology rolls) and dump recyclables onto the floor. From there they are moved by giant front loaders onto even more giant conveyer belts that sort out paper, plastics, metal and glass as they lift materials to the second floor. The Toy Story 3 feeling comes both from being surrounded by garbage and from feeling like a tiny mote in a giant machine. The amount of material being moved through the transfer station is simply mind-boggling. It was difficult to grasp its scale. On the second floor, the materials the machines could not handle are hand-sorted. Watching this process made me despair for humanity, as my fellow San Francisco residents seem unable to grasp the concept of what belongs in the recycling. Dozens of workers attempted to pick out plastic bags, clothing, plastic bottles of motor oil, ad infinitum, from paper destined for bundling and eventual recycling. It was impossible. They aim for 90% appropriate materials in the bales, we were told. That should be easier than it is. The relentless efforts of the hundreds of garbage-snatching seagulls didn’t help matters either.

Is artistic reuse recycling, upcycling, or something else entirely?

Is artistic reuse recycling, upcycling, or something else entirely?

Recycling is a tricky concept. Some things are recycled and some are only kind of recycled. Glass and metal containers and shards are melted down and turned into more glass and metal containers. Concrete is smashed into sand and turned into more concrete. Although the process is energy intensive, these are closed loops.  These products are recycled. Paper is kind of recycled. High quality paper, like office paper, is usually turned into low-quality paper, like paper bags. Low-quality paper is turned into even lower-quality paper, like tissues and toilet paper. The tissues can go into the compost, but the toilet paper goes to landfill by way of the sewer system. The more non-paper waste that gets mixed into the paper, the less likely it can be reclaimed for higher-quality recycled paper. Rigid plastic is down-cycled. Assuming it isn’t thrown away outright, it gets one more use; bottles turn into plastic lumber or carpet or fleece, but once these materials wear out, they all go to the landfill. And soft plastics all go directly to the landfill, although only after Recology workers spend six hours out of every 24 picking plastic bags out of the recycling machinery. Less than thirty minutes into the tour, I was completely convinced that I should never buy another item wrapped in soft plastic. This is surprisingly hard, even in San Francisco.

The university facilities representative leading our group was less sanguine about San Francisco’s 80% diversion rate. Diversion rates are calculated by weight, and San Francisco recycles a lot of concrete. By volume, the endless sea of plastic is a much bigger problem, and landfills, of course, are packed by size and not by weight. Other universities in California also claim diversion rates of 80% but only, he said, “because they tear down buildings or repave parking lots every year.” Construction and demolition, as well as aggressive composting at San Francisco’s many restaurants and parks, boosts the calculated diversion rate. He estimated, glumly, that San Francisco residents are recycling and composting at most 40% of the waste that they could. And that this is the best rate in the country.

More art from reclaimed waste

More art from reclaimed waste

From the recycling transfer station, we headed to the main facility, where household waste, compost and landfill waste are packed up for their eventual destinations. Recology served us a nice lunch on plates and silver diverted from landfill, showed us an upbeat little movie, and answered questions. I was not brazen enough to ask whether the food was dumpster-dived, but after seeing what people throw away in this city, I would not be surprised if it was. We had lots of questions. I learned that you can recycle (okay, down-cycle) dental floss containers because they are rigid plastic; removing the metal cutter is nice but not necessary. Dental floss itself, however, is uniformly made of plastic and messes with sorting machinery and should always go in the landfill bin. Toothpaste tubes, tetrapaks: landfill. The soft plastics “recycling” bins at grocery stores that supposedly send plastic bags to be turned into park benches? Our facilities representative reported that almost no store will say where they’re actually going, so they’re probably being sent straight to the landfill.

The most hated word at Recology turned out to be “biodegradable.” Nearly everything is biodegradable eventually, they said. But people think that means it can be composted. It cannot. “Compostable” is a legally binding term in the state of California; if an item says it is compostable and it’s not, the state will levy massive fines. Biodegradable is a weasel word intended to sidestep the law. So “biodegradable” materials and bioplastics: landfill. The plastic keeps the biological material from composting, and the biological material contaminates the plastic. That was depressing.

More art from the gallery

More art from the gallery

Much less depressing was the visit to the Artist in Residence program, where artists are sponsored to create projects out of whatever they can find on site. Much of the art was wildly impressive, and there are regular shows where it can be viewed, as well as an outdoor sculpture garden. Many of the other sites showed where visitors came to drop off household waste sorted through it; construction debris is sorted, furniture is donated to thrift stores, electronic waste and batteries are sorted by type. Recology was also pioneering Styrofoam recycling; clean packing materials were compressed into thin, heavy sticks that could be used for things like crown molding. The process is hopelessly expensive and energy-intensive so it’s more of a demonstration project than a feasible way to handle waste, but it was interesting. The inevitable seagulls were controlled by an on-site falconer who kept four hawks circling all day. Recology had tried bottle rockets, netting and dogs, but the hawks were the most effective. We did not get to tour the compost transfer station, probably the biggest success of the program; San Francisco’s compost is used by California wineries and farms. And I got to take some compost home to show my kids what putting food waste in the compost bin, which they do diligently, really meant. They were completely floored.

Our old seat cushion went to the Pit. Is there any alternative?

Our old seat cushion went to the Pit. Is there a better alternative?

Our last stop was The Pit. Everything that goes into a black bin in San Francisco is dumped, unsorted, into The Pit, shoveled into tractor-trailers, and trucked to the landfill. The Pit is huge. It runs 24 hours a day and seven days a week. There is a smell. Trucks enter at the top level and drop their loads. The sounds of breaking glass and the efforts of occasional seagulls to snatch food make it pretty clear that a lot of what’s in The Pit could be recycled or composted (efforts to assess it suggest that two-thirds of what’s in The Pit could be diverted). Bulldozers shovel the waste into waiting tractor-trailers below. The process never stops. It is difficult to describe the feeling of watching massive piles of trash build and be shoveled away, endlessly. It turns out that material in landfills does not biodegrade. Everything that goes into the landfill is forever. I will never look at a garbage can the same way again.

This is how we shop now.

This is how we shop now.

I see now why were asked, as part of our service on the Zero Waste sub-committee, to visit Recology. This is the best that the United States currently has to offer in terms of waste management, and that was sobering. At home, post-tour, we are now uncompromising in using cloth produce bags (we had always used cloth grocery bags) at the farmer’s market and we don’t shop at Trader Joe’s much anymore, because there’s almost nothing to buy there that’s not wrapped in plastic. We now buy milk and yogurt in glass, and everything else in bulk. But mostly, we are buying less, because everything we buy must eventually be handled somehow, and packaging is not free.  It is probably not a coincidence that this month’s grocery bill is half of last month’s.

I am familiar with life-changing experiences by now, and this one didn’t require a trip to Copenhagen. I only had to ride across town.

But I promised to tell how to get a bike for free. The answer is to work for Recology. One of the tour guides mentioned that he never had to take his own bike to site visits and lock it outside, because he could always pick out a nice bike from the garbage. Recology workers never have to worry about San Francisco’s rampant bike theft. He admitted that the last bike he picked up was better than his commuter bike, “way more gears for the hills.” It’s entirely possible that anyone could show up at the dump and ask for a bike.

This is our refrigerator post-tour. We are trying harder.

This is our refrigerator post-tour. We are trying harder. (The glass jars are sold by Cole Hardware in San Francisco for thrift store prices, luckily for us.)

At Recology they suggest people stop calling the things in bins “garbage.” A better word for the many unnecessary things we throw away is “waste.” And a free bike is the least of it.


Filed under advocacy, commuting, San Francisco, zero waste