San Francisco

San Francisco’s ambitious goal of recycling 100 percent of its waste by 2020 might not be as impossible as skeptics suggest. After analyzing the data, the environmentally progressive city announced that it had successfully managed to divert 80% of its waste in 2011. More specifically, rather than fill up nearby landfills, the waste was diverted into recycling and compost programs throughout the San Francisco Bay area. The lofty 80% diversion rate is the highest achieved by any major city in the US, and acts as an example for other major cities to follow.

“San Francisco is demonstrating once again that zero waste is an achievable and environmentally responsible goal,” said David Chiu, President of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors. There is growing optimism that the city’s lofty 2020 goal might actually come to fruition. It certainly helps when the city continues to polish its already strict policies by expanding bans and promoting their area’s recycling infrastructure. With enough community effort and cooperation, San Francisco just might be able to completely cut the 440,000 tons of waste it still makes per year.

San Francisco’s recent achievements are an indicator of the city’s much larger trend towards environmental sustainability. A combination of city ordinances has banned everything from Styrofoam containers to plastic bags while promoting strong recycling and composting habits from all of its citizens. The results – aside from the bragging rights of being a national leader in environmental policies – are palpable. San Francisco’s current greenhouse gas emission levels are significantly lower than what they were 20 years ago, making their air some of the cleanest it has been for an entire generation.

Even if San Francisco fails to attain its 100% waste diversion rate, its current achievements (and the success of its progressive legislation) have given the city a lot clout in the national community. Following its lead, many environmentally conscious municipalities have imitated San Francisco’s policies in order to promote sustainability within their own wards, with Los Angeles’ plastic bag ban being a recent and noteworthy example. With a bit of luck and a loyal following, perhaps other cities might begin to approach the zero waste barrier as well.

Before more environmental groups herald San Francisco as the be-all, end-all example for sustainability, a bit of caution should be exercised. San Francisco, after all, has spent decades creating progressive legislation, increasing citizen responsibility, and (most importantly) building appropriate infrastructure. It’s easy for an activist to suggest an increase in the number of recyclable items, or to propose larger composting programs (as I have seen some activists do for their small town municipalities). However, these facilities take a lot of time and money to create. The expectation of such high goals serves to slow down, rather than speed up, progress. If we’re actually serious about moving towards environmental sustainability, we can’t expect everyone to have a running start; sometime it takes a few baby steps before much larger legislation can take place.