No trip to san francisco would be complete without a few visits to its world-class restaurants, but now that city’s residents have a new food obsession: collecting food waste and turning it into compost. Food waste collection is only part of San Francisco’s successful recycling program. In 2000, 46 percent of the city’s 1.6 million tons of trash was recycled and diverted from landfills — up from 42 percent in 1999. City officials say San Francisco will reach the 50 percent goal by 2003 and maybe sooner, according to Jack Macy, organics recycling coordinator for the San Francisco Department of the Environment.
Macy attributes this upward trend to the city’s compost program. But while San Francisco is the nation’s first major metropolitan area to initiate citywide food collection for composting, Macy says it hasn’t been easy.
In this densely populated and culturally diverse environment, where 40 percent of residents do not speak English, yard trimmings make up less than 5 percent of the total waste stream, and food scraps (pre- and post-consumer with meat, along with compostables such as food-soiled paper, waxed cardboard, wooden crates and animal bedding) comprise about 20 percent of the diverted waste.
To meet the state’s 50 percent diversion mandate, San Francisco was forced to address organic waste.
“Unlike most other communities, we don’t have a lot of yard waste and yard trimmings because we don’t have yards,” says Bob Besso, Sunset Scavenger recycling manager. “So we don’t have that component of the waste stream to divert to get us to that 50 percent goal.”
Also, he says, San Francisco was developed in an era when food waste disposal was not considered for building codes and planning. Many sewer-system pipes and older homes don’t facilitate garbage disposals. In a more modern city, food waste probably isn’t in the waste stream to begin with. But in San Francisco, it’s a big issue. Commercial food waste collection began as a pilot program in 1996 and was expanded citywide by 1998. Residential food composting collection began spreading citywide in February 2000, after one and one-half years and nine pilot tests determined the best approach. The program is expected to be fully implemented by 2003.
Fantastic Food Diversion
Already, by the end of 2001, almost 40,000 tons of food scraps and other compostables from more than 62,000 San Francisco households and 1,000 businesses were being collected and composted annually, according to Macy.
This is the result of an innovative collaboration between the City and County of San Francisco Recycling Program, part of the San Francisco Department of the Environment; Norcal Waste System Co., which owns the city’s two exclusive haulers Sunset Scavenger and Golden Gate Disposal and Recycling companies; and Sanitary Fill Co. (also a Norcal subsidiary), which operates the transfer station and hauls the organics 65 miles to Norcal’s regional Jepson Prairie Composting (JPO) facility, which was expanded to handle San Francisco’s food and soiled-paper organics.
The collection of food scraps from households is achieved through a three-cart color-coded program called “Fantastic 3.” It consists of a blue cart for recyclables including paper, bottles and cans, a green cart for compostables such as yard trimmings and food scraps, and a black bin for other trash. Households receive three-wheeled, 32-gallon carts that are collected weekly. Residents also receive a two-gallon green kitchen pail to help separate and collect food scraps for once-a-week collection.
Apartment complexes and small businesses also are served by the Fantastic 3 vehicles. Residential households with individual service receive all three carts, but apartment buildings must request the green bins. Businesses, too, must ask for the green and blue carts, and must request the number of weekly pickups desired.
At the end of 2001, the number of participating businesses had grown to 583 (in addition to those with Fantastic 3 collection) served by Sunset Scavenger diverting about 15,000 tons per year, and more than 200 served by Golden Gate diverting about 12,000 tons per year, Macy says. Participants include small to large grocery and produce stores, restaurants, café shops, juice bars, floral shops, the zoo, breweries, university research labs, school cafeterias and hotels. Businesses are provided with dedicated green collection containers from 32-gallon carts to roll-offs, or even a dedicated compactor, and they can have compostables collected up to seven days a week.
“We can make a fairly efficient collection route even though the customer maybe only has 100 pounds of material to pick up every other day,” Besso says. “We can justify collecting [this frequently] because we have routes out there collecting residential every day.” As an incentive to participate, businesses pay for the collection of source-separated compostables at 25 percent off the regular heavy commercial garbage rate. Many significantly reduce their landfilled trash volumes and service, and therefore reduce their overall disposal costs, including the composting collection charges.
Sunset Scavenger and Golden Gate Disposal and Recycling companies have an exclusive contract with the city to collect recyclables, compostable materials and garbage.
“The city’s authority to manage our company’s program is very clear and defined. Because we are the sole-source provider for the city, it behooves us to work together to achieve the common goal, as compared to a much more typical adversarial role that most other communities have with their haulers,” Besso explains. “To meet state goals, the city can’t do it without us, and we can’t do it without the city’s permission.”
To collect waste materials, the companies use front-end load compactors, with attachments for carts or rear loaders that can squeeze into tighter areas. Vehicles often haul two to three loads each day to the city’s transfer station.
Compostables are collected using Labrie semi-automated, side-loading single-compartment compactor vehicles. Recyclables and trash are co-collected with Labrie semi-automated, vertically split, dual-compartment side-loading compactor vehicles. According to Macy, these Fantastic 3 vehicles likely will be converted to run on compressed natural gas (CNG) as the technology becomes economically viable.
Besso says it’s essential to use trucks that don’t leak, especially when you’re collecting food waste.
“You have to have a tailgate and a loading hopper on the truck that won’t spill excess liquids on to the street,” he says. “You also want to have a tightly sealed collection cart.”
Besso says Sunset Scavenger opted for a collection vehicle that its drivers interact with. “The driver actually gets out of the truck, rolls the cart over and dumps it … so he gets to see the material going into his truck,” he says. “We’re holding the driver responsible for the material that goes in his truck. So he is motivated to make sure that the material that goes in is appropriate.”
If inappropriate items are found in customers’ carts, drivers can leave what Besso calls a “love note,” or a notification that there’s a problem. The ability for drivers to identify proper and improper materials factors into the program’s success, he says.
“In the event that [customers] don’t correct [improper disposal problems], we remove them from the program and they have to find another way to deal with their waste product, which could result in a larger or more expensive garbage cart,” Besso adds. “All we charge residents for is the garbage cart. In the commercial sector, [customers receive] a discount on the green cart, so if we stop collecting from them, there’s a financial motivation.”
Once organics are collected, they are delivered to the city’s transfer station operated by Norcal’s Sanitary Fill Co., where workers top-load the materials from a dedicated portion of the refuse pit to large “possum belly” trailers moved by trucks, which are being converted to liquefied natural gas (LNG). The organics are hauled to the JPO facility, Vacaville, Calif., where material is mixed, ground and composted [See “Cooking the Compost” on page 95].
There are several challenges for the haulers in rolling out and collecting food waste.
For example, multilingual residents need outreach educational materials to achieve good participation with low contamination. This includes an advance mailing announcing the new program and carts, a detailed brochure delivered with the carts describing how to participate, and stickers on the cart indicating what materials to put in them. “We needed to provide visuals, icons representing the materials we’re trying to collect in these carts,” Besso says. “A lot of kitchen work is done by people who don’t speak English.”
Besso says space limitations are a major problem. Many restaurants have tiny kitchens and storage areas. Residents have complained that the number and size of containers are too large for small spaces, especially where houses often are connected to each other and garages are small or non-existent.
The automated truck requires a minimum 32-gallon cart, but 20-gallon service is available using an insert in the cart. Sunset helps residents find ways to fit the carts somewhere and/or share green or even blue carts with multifamily neighbors; it also will provide one green cart for a multifamily account sharing a yard.
“Our biggest customer challenge is space, along with the plumbing challenges of an older city,” Besso says. “They never really thought about what kind of space would be required to sort and separate three different types of materials.”
Asking customers to accommodate three carts for collecting organic and recyclable material is difficult, but so is getting them to physically separate food waste.
“The second challenges is more conceptual — getting people to address the ‘yucky’ factor of dealing with food waste,” Besso says. “A lot of people don’t have warm and fuzzy feelings about food waste. It’s a big leap for them to not … throw it in the garbage.”
Secrets of San Francisco’s Success
Despite the challenges, Macy says the three-cart program is enabling San Francisco to achieve multiple goals of diversion, customer and driver satisfaction and safety, poaching and litter reduction, and increased efficiency for a reasonable cost.
For example, he says, the diversion tonnage has almost doubled, compared with the previous curbside blue bin program, equalling a 45 percent average diversion rate on new program routes. Changing to commingled recyclables and a larger container has increased the diversion rate by at least 20 percent, while the remaining increase is from compostables, which previously weren’t collected.
The program has improved safety and convenience by using wheeled carts. Previously, non-wheeled cans and bins were carried by residents and emptied by collection workers into larger bins or rear-loading compactors. Using enclosed, lidded containers with additional capacity better contains materials and has reduced recyclables scavenging from curbside set-outs.
City and company surveys have shown that the program has been well-received by residents, according to Macy. The latest survey found more than 80 percent of residents using the three-cart service preferred the new program over the previous 12-gallon blue bin recycling and trash collection program, and another 10 percent liked it as much as the old program. Composting collection participation has continued at an average 40 percent for weekly set-outs and 60 percent on a monthly basis, he says.
Although San Francisco’s program is often criticized for allowing one company to collect organic and recycling materials for a fee, Besso says this arrangement contributes to its success. Compared with other organic waste programs, he says, the materials Sunset Scavenger collects are cleaner, in part, because of its exclusive contract.
“If [San Francisco residents] want to participate in the program, they’ve got to keep it clean,” he adds. “There’s no place else for them to go.”
According to Besso, other programs collecting food waste in the state of California are getting a much dirtier mix of organic materials, which produces a product that may contain glass or plastic. But other cities are collecting less-than-desirable, dirtier material because they have to meet California’s 50 percent diversion goal, he says.
“They’re being forced to address how to get this material out of the waste stream,” Besso says. “We’re in a unique situation because we have exclusive rights. We can say, ‘Yes we’re happy to do it for you, but you’ve got to follow the rules.’”
According to Macy, ambitious landfill tonnage reduction goals require Norcal to increase diversion or reduce disposed waste by 160,000 tons annually. Sunset Scavenger’s Fantastic 3 collection expansion includes adding one co-collection route, which averages more than 1,300 households, apartment complexes and small businesses, per week.
Macy projects that the diversion from the Fantastic 3 organics collection will increase to more than 35,000 tons with the full program rollout in 2003. An additional 44,000 tons will be generated from dedicated commercial organics collection at full program rollout, for a total of nearly 80,000 tons diverted, most of which would be food scraps.
Through these programs, the city expects that San Francisco will increase its total diversion rate from 46 percent in 2000 to more than 56 percent by 2003. These results leave other cities hungry to duplicate San Francisco’s food waste success story, Besso says.
“All municipalities are very interested in how to address the food waste issue,” he says. “There’s additional motivation in that if you get the putrescents out of the waste stream, then maybe you don’t need weekly collection of garbage, [which] can reduce cost of the municipal collection programs.”