Zero waste in landfills and oceans – a response to city hearing on plastic bags

Tuesday night’s meeting of the City Council sub-committee on plastic bags was a good opener for facing the trash build-up but it left out so much that it may have hurt the hunt for the real problem. That problem is waste, a much larger category than plastics. Even if plastic bags are banned, our landfill is still drowning in waste and harming the water table, the air we breathe, and our most important resource, the oceans.

It was surprising that most speakers at the meeting failed to mention the name of the task that hundreds of cities throughout the world are tackling: Zero Waste. At the top of the success list are San Francisco* and Kamikatsu, Japan. Not far behind are Australia, Canada, Italy, Austin, TX and Boulder, CO.

This effort to diagnose and act on the problem of growing landfills is more than twenty years old. Consensus is building: Googling “Zero Waste” demonstrates widespread agreement on the problem, its form, and its solutions. In this global effort to minimize waste, some numbers are important and staggering: in 2016 the world produced more than two billion tons of solid waste, and large landfills get ten thousand tons of waste a day.

Understanding Zero Waste starts by taking a field trip to the Landfill. There, we find mountains of stuff that belong in other places. If we look closely, we find five caterogies:

  • Recyclables like glass bottles and aluminum cans;
  • Reusables like clothing, metals and appliances;
  • Compostables like food and dirt;
  • Biodegradables like some plastics;
  • Paper and cardboard.

Missing from that list are plastic bags. They’re almost impossible to recycle so until they become biodegradable, we must indeed ban them. (Marshall Medoff, not a chemist, nor a scientist, may have found the formula for biodegradable plastic.)

With hard work (and more barrels) cities are able to redirect most waste away from landfills. “Recology: A World without Waste” is a business that helps that process move forward. And in our own back yard Aldis grocery store offers an encouraging picture: No free plastic bags. Customers bring their own reusable bags. Cart rental keeps prices down. Specially designed packaging avoids over-packaging. Aldis participates in EPA’s Food Recovery Challenge.

If you wish to know more, consult EcoWatch; 5Gyres.org; and 4ocean.com. Read the bible for Zero Waste by Paul Connett, The Zero Waste Solution: Untrashing the Planet. *San Francisco offers a well-detailed report on how it has moved forward toward zero waste. The following is quoted from their webpage at sfenvironment.org: The City of San Francisco has adopted a variety of  policies  which have helped the city move toward accomplishing the goal of zero waste. Most important to the City’s success is the  Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance , which went into effect on October 21, 2009. It requires San Francisco residents and businesses to properly sort recyclables from compostables and keep them out of the trash to landfill and place them in the proper collection containers.

The Department of the Environment’s Environment Now team conducts extensive, multilingual and door-to-door outreach to residents and businesses and also checks residential curbside bins throughout the city. If materials are found in the incorrect bin, a tag is posted on the resident’s bin that indicates the correct bin. The team returns the following week to ensure that the error was corrected. The team also visits residents to answer questions about recycling and composting.

The Department of the Environment staff work with Recology, the city’s hauler, to ensure that businesses have composting and recycling bins. If they do not, the Department sends them a letter advising them to order composting and recycling service. The Department of the Environment then follows up in person to ensure compliance.

In addition, the Department of the Environment launched  RecycleWhere , a recycling database for residents and businesses to find information on how to recycle almost anything in San Francisco. The  Signmaker tool  is another resource for residents and businesses to make their own recycle, compost, and landfill signs. SFRecycles was created to help residents and businesses with what goes where.

The Department of the Environment prioritizes education and outreach to encourage compliance, rather than impose fines. Face-to-face outreach has proven effective in helping residents and businesses become compliant with laws. However, the City can impose fines to repeat offenders.

The Department of the Environment, which works with businesses and residents all over San Francisco, has found that the community continues to be very positive and supportive of the City’s zero waste goals. San Francisco residents take great pride in their city and are passionate about taking care of it. This attitude has helped integrate sustainability into San Francisco’s culture.

Tom Klein

Bowling Green

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