Ultimate zero

San Francisco promises that by 2020, no garbage will end up in a landfill. But is that really possible?

Too much trash: Recology workers sort through tons of the city's waste.


In January, Mayor Ed Lee appeared on the PBS NewsHour to talk up the city's Zero Waste program, an initiative to eliminate all landfilled garbage by 2020 by diverting 100 percent of the city's municipal waste to recycling or compost. "We're not going to be satisfied," with the 80 percent waste diversion already achieved, Lee told program host Spencer Michels. "We want 100 percent zero waste. This is where we're going."

But somewhere in Te Anau, New Zealand, an environmental scholar tuning into an online broadcast of the program was having none of it. "I sat there thinking, no, you're not. It would be great if you were, but you're not — for obvious reasons," said Robert Krausz, who's working toward a PhD in environmental management, describing his reaction during a Skype call with the Bay Guardian.

Krausz, a Lincoln University scholar originally from Canada, spent three years studying municipal zero-waste initiatives internationally, and completed an in-depth, 40-page analysis of San Francisco's Zero Waste program as part of his doctoral thesis.

He may as well have taken aim at a sacred cow. The city's Zero Waste program has near-universal support among local elected officials, and has garnered no shortage of glowing media attention. San Francisco's track record of diverting 80 percent of waste from the landfill is well ahead of the curve nationally, scoring 15 percent higher than Portland, Ore., a green hub of the Pacific Northwest, and 20 percentage points or higher above Seattle, according figures provided by Recology, San Francisco's municipal waste hauler.

Despite the city's well-earned green reputation, Krausz arrived at the pessimistic conclusion that "San Francisco's zero waste to landfill by 2020 initiative is headed for failure." In seven years' time, he predicts, the program deadline will be marked with a day of reckoning rather than a celebratory gala. "I think the city is setting itself up," Krausz told the Guardian. "Somebody's going to be holding the bag in 2020."




Sporting a goatee and glasses, Krausz comes across as the type you might find locking up his bike outside a natural foods store with canvas bags at the ready. When he visited San Francisco, he said he was ready to be wowed by the example of an ecologically enlightened city, yet ultimately left in disappointment. "It was just another affluent American city, in terms of consumption."

The problem, he argues, is that people are still buying way too much disposable stuff — and a significant amount can't be recycled. Plastic bags, food wrapping, pantyhose, plastic film, pet waste, construction materials with resin in them (like the popular Trex decking), and particularly disposable diapers have nowhere to go but into the landfill.

San Francisco produces a total of about six kilograms of trash per person per day before diversion is factored in — three times the U.S. national average. That's a sobering figure that puts a slight dent in the city's eco-conscious image. It's not really fair to denizens of the city by the Bay, because it counts trash generated by 20 million annual visitors, daytime employees, developers, and businesses as well as residents. Nevertheless, the trash output ranks well above the per capita average for the Eurozone, which clocks in at a minimalistic 0.5 kg per person per day.

The city has earned its bragging rights for making strides toward diverting waste from the landfill — yet truckloads of waste still leave the famously green city every day. Since 2003, Krausz notes, San Francisco's overall waste generation has actually increased, from 1,900 to 2,200 kilograms per person per year. At the same time, the per capita amount of waste going into a landfill has dropped, from about 1,000 to 500 kilograms per year. That's still a lot of garbage.


The garbage companies and the recyclers want you to believe two important things, neither of which is true. First, that garbage is divinely ordained and will always be, must be, cannot ever be eliminated and all that matters is what you do with it (bury it, burn it, recycle it). Second, because this so conveniently justifies their backwards looking programs, that waste happens when an apple core goes into a dump. Nonsense! Wasting is roaring past us now on every side and it has nothing to do with the act of throwing away, therefore even totally recycling everything is a meaningless and useless goal. Keep in mind, what the recyclers don't want you to think about, that recycling is GARBAGE MANAGEMENT. Given the pollyannish pronouncements of the garbage dumpers and the recyclers (they are the same organizations) you would think recycling somehow eliminates garbage creation. Noooo, it increases garbage because our wasteful society now can pretend it's okay to make even more garbage - and they do! It's called Jevons' Paradox, the more you manage a problem the worse it gets, to compensate, so long as the basic thrust to continue the problem remains in place. It's often applied to the problem of increasing gas mileage, only to have miles driven increase even more.

Waste happens when gigantic quantities of resources are extracted in order to be processed in factories to produce crap that is not needed. Or even stuff that is needed, but that is designed to self destruct soon after first use. Gobbling up trillions of dollars of every kind of raw material to feed the maws of endless factories around the world incessantly is a huge waste compared to how things could be organized. My work at the Zero Waste Institute shows how all manner of products can be designed for near-perpetual reuse. It really works once you stop trying to find ways to manage garbage more painlessly. The waste comes in the extraction, the operation of the factories, the unnecessary use of electricity, power, water, air, chemicals etc. to make and make and make over and over for discard. And all the while billions of workers are consuming goods for their lives to make stuff that could have been made once and reused many times. The materials, that the recyclers love so much, are almost worthless. Putting those together into enormously complex products are where all of the labor and the expense go and recapturing only the materials is useless.

And that is the real reason why SF's recycling program is and will be a failure.

But don't expect rational thought from the recycling enthusiasts. Think about this. There is no theory of recycling. It's all just superficial baby thinking. Zero Waste on the other hand is a deep, scientific theory with many ins and outs. I should know. I was the first person in the world to use the term Zero Waste publicly.

Posted by Guest on May. 16, 2013 @ 7:19 pm

The mendacious recyclers of SF want to pretend that they can contemplate - as a vision as distant and grand as the Golden Gate Bridge nestling in the Marin hills - a day in which every piece of garbage coming out of SF is recycled. What arrant nonsense!

If you ignore 95% of your goal then you can accomplish great things. You can jump out of an airplane and fly with your hands if you only need to succeed 5% of the time. Well you know what I mean. Sometimes the airplane could be low over water.

San Francisco is chock-a-block with buildings. Those are routinely demolished in their helter skelter rush to find new ways to invest capital. What happens to old buildings? They are designed to be destroyed and they are. They proceed directly to GO (Garbage Operations). The dump! A little steel is removed first. Big deal!

Even more deception. In 1996, a bill by Bustamonte, AB 1647 was passed. It says that if you use garbage for covering a "dumpface" (the top of a pile of garbage) to protect the other garbage from gulls and rats, it counts as - guess what? - recycled! If you use garbage to build a wall or a road inside the dump, it counts as - guess what? - recycled! This bill had to be passed because the recycling bill, AB 939, demands that recycling rates had to increase every year and that was impossible. So they decided to count garbage dumping as recycling. And the citizens of SF are actually falling for this stuff.

Then consider all the millions of computers and coffee makers and electric ovens and cars and trucks and thousands of other common articles used in SF. These are made somewhere, don't you think? In factories. Which by usual reports produce about 70 times as much garbage as the end users of the goods produced. Is anyone counting that garbage (chemicals, machines, scraps, solvents, rejects etc.) in the list of garbage NOT being recycled. Of course not. Too inconvenient!

So if you do the math, San Francisco's REAL recycling rate is around 5% and that's generous. Recycling is a fraud from the beginning. But a profitable one, so don't wake up folks. Keep dreaming!

There are real, scientific, effective and simple ways to handle the garbage crisis but it doesn't create the huge profits that faux recycling does, at least not concentrated into politicians' pockets. It creates a better, less wasteful, more intelligently organized world for all of us, where the benefit is spread around in a cleaner, less contaminated life and a healthier planet. But without concentrated profit, no one cares.

For some real information, not lies, go to www.zerowasteinstitute.org.

Paul Palmer

Posted by Paul Palmer on May. 18, 2013 @ 11:09 am

Here we go again, tilting at windmills. There is nothing wrong with putting our garbage in landfills.

Posted by Guest on May. 20, 2013 @ 6:11 am