San Francisco Waste Management Case Study: Recycling & Composting Rates, & Landfill Diversion

Of all cities across the US and the world, San Francisco has one of the highest recycling and composting rates, along with diversion from landfill rates.

In this case study, we outline the various factors that helped San Francisco achieve these rates, and also give an overall summary of how San Francisco manages their waste.


Summary – San Francisco Waste Management Case Study

What Are San Francisco’s Recycling & Composting Rates?

80% of San Francisco’s waste is currently diverted from landfill, and goes to recycling and composting.


Comparing San Francisco Diversion Rates To Other Cities In The US

As a comparison, New York only diverts about 21 percent of its waste, and Chicago is at about 10 percent.


How San Francisco Achieved Their Recycling & Composting Rates

Some of the things that might have contributed to San Francisco’s higher than average recycling and composting rates, and landfill waste diversion, were:

New recycling/composting legislation

Banning of certain types of non recyclable waste, or added charges for these types of waste

Incentivizing recycling & making it easier, compared to general waste and sending waste to landfill

Charges, discounts and penalties for businesses based on waste generation & sorting

Partner with one waste management company instead of several, in order to streamline and make waste management more efficient

Scale up and invest in recycling and composting operations, facilities and infrastructure

Fund the waste management system primarily through waste collection fees

Provide employment opportunities through the recycling system


The resource at the bottom of this guide has a full breakdown on the San Francisco waste management system


Other Potential Ways To Increase Recycling & Composting Rates

There may be some other potential ways San Francisco may further increase recycling and composting rates, and some of those ways are listed below in this guide.


Onto some of the ways San Francisco has achieved their recycling and composting rates …


1. New Recycling/Composting Legislation 

Legislation to make certain types of recycling and composting mandatory for businesses and residents, and for waste to be recycled or composted in certain ways


2. Banning Of Certain Types Of Non Recyclable Waste, Or Added Charges For These Types Of Waste

Banning non essential single use plastic bags at supermarkets

And, charges on a single use paper bag (and items that are wasted at higher rates, that may get dumped at landfills at higher rates)


3. Incentivising Recycling & Making It Easier, Compared To General Waste & Sending Waste To Landfill 

San Francisco initially set trash collection rates much higher than recycling and composting rates, however, they adjusted these rates down to make them more comparable

Instead, they changed their standard residential bins to include:

– A 64-gallon blue recycling bin

– A 32-gallon green composting bin

– And, a 16-gallon black trash bin

The aim was to make recycling and composting easier


4. Charges, Discounts & Penalties For Businesses Based On Waste Generation & Sorting

Businesses are charged according to the volume of waste they generate 

Businesses also receive discounts for using the green and blue bins, and are penalized if recyclables or compostables end up in the trash


5. Partner With One Waste Management Company Instead Of Several, In Order To Streamline & Make Waste Management More Efficient

San Francisco has an exclusive partnership with waste management company Recology.

Working with one company eases the administrative burden and makes it possible to collaborate on long-term goals

New York, by comparison, has a private system for commercial waste, comprised of hundreds of competing waste collection companies.

This makes it challenging for the local government to collaborate on citywide initiatives.


6. Scale Up & Invest In Recycling & Composting Operations, Facilities & Infrastructure

San Francisco has an advanced recycling center, and also has secondary uses for compost products:

– All of the city’s recyclables are brought to Recycle Center, a 200,000 square foot warehouse … that processes 40 to 45 tons of materials per hour … 14 people work alongside high-tech screens, magnets and optical sorters to weed out contamination and separate the paper, metals and plastics … similar materials are able to be sorted quickly and shipped domestically or abroad

– In terms of compost – all of the city’s yard waste and food scraps are brought to Jepson Prairie Organics … compostables are weighed, ground up and blended. Eventually, the nutrient-rich product is sold as fertilizer to vineyards in wine country and nut growers in the Central Valley


It’s worth noting that San Francisco also share their waste management information with others – Recycle Central and Jepson Prairie host national and international visitors to teach them about the keys to San Francisco’s success


7. Fund The Waste Management System Primarily Through Waste Collection Fees

San Francisco’s waste management system costs about $300 million annually

The program is funded solely through waste collection fees, which are no higher than average for the Bay Area


It would be interesting though to compare these waste collection fees to fees in other areas, and, it would also be interesting to consider the opportunity cost of paying these collection fees vs collection fees for other waste management types.


8. Provide Employment Opportunities Through The Recycling System

[In some cases,] for each ton of material, 20 more jobs are created for recycling compared to if that material is put in a landfill


How Might Recycling & Composting Rates Be Increased Further?

Some potential ways may include but aren’t limited to:

– Considering How More Of The Waste Going To Landfill Could Be Diverted

[It’s estimated] that 60 percent of what ends up in San Francisco’s trash bins could be composted or recycled


– More Awareness & Education For Citizens & Businesses On How Rates Can Be Increased

It’s possible more awareness and education for citizens on recycling, composting and landfill diversion could help

For example, addition education could be provided on the easier and best ways to sort waste into the different waste bins provided. 


– Change In Product Design At The Producer Stage

Packaging and products themselves might be designed or manufactured differently so that they are more effectively or more easily recycled or composted.


We’ve also included other potential ways to increase recycling rates and recycling systems in general in this guide.


Potential Tradeoffs For Different Waste Management Strategies

There are tradeoffs to any type of waste management system, as there would be for San Francisco’s current system.

As a few examples:

– A potential tradeoff to legislating certain types of waste practices, or penalizing businesses for the type of waste they generate, is that this might restrict or interfere with businesses activity, and also the types of products or services

– A potential tradeoff to partnering with one waste management company is that this may decrease competition in the waste management market, and this might have a range of flow on effects (particularly on a free market)

– There are general drawbacks to both recycling and composting to consider for any city or town that makes these waste management options a primary part of their waste management strategy


Each city would ideally assess their own situation to determine what waste management system is best for them in the short term and long term.






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