Recycling Our Way to a More Sustainable Future

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Editor’s note: This post is a contribution by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. See his last post on electric vehicle charging infrastructure or all of his previous posts here. A companion piece was also posted on earlier today.

San Francisco is a city that knows how to recycle. We work hard to give new life to our paper, bottles, cans and other waste.

New statistics released today show we are keeping 72 percent of all discards from going to the landfill – up from 70 percent the year before.

That’s a big leap for one year. The most significant gains came from the recycling of material from building sites – due in large part to our 2006 mandatory Construction and Demolition Debris Recovery Ordinance.

By requiring builders to recycle debris from construction projects, we were able to divert tens of thousands of new tons of material away from the landfill. This ordinance is unique in that it doesn’t require deposits or bonds, making it small business-friendly and limiting the amount of bureaucracy needed to implement the program.

When it comes to our recycling programs, we’re always in the development phase. In order to meet our ambitious goal of 75 percent recycling by 2010 and zero waste by 2020, we are constantly looking for additional materials to recycle, and for emerging markets to make use of our recyclables.

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A few years back we developed—along with the company Recology, our partner in recycling — an innovative program to collect food scraps and turn them into organic soil. Local farms and vineyards now use this soil to grow crops, which are then sold back to consumers in San Francisco. We close the loop locally.

We’ve also recently started recycling almost all types of plastic. We take everything except plastic bags and Styrofoam. Most of it gets made into plastic molding and bender board.

A seventy-two percent diversion rate from the landfill is something to be proud of, and I congratulate every San Francisco resident, business, and visitor who helped us along the way. But we can’t rest on our laurels, not when there are so many valuable resources still going to the dump.

We recently conducted a waste stream analysis and discovered that about two thirds of the stuff people throw away—half a million tons each year—could have been recycled or turned to compost. If were able to capture everything, we would have a recycling rate of 90 percent.

That’s why I’ve introduced an ordinance that will make it mandatory for everyone —homeowners, businesses, or renters — to use our recycling and composting programs. If we can get food scrap collection service into large apartment buildings that currently don’t have it, we’re going to see another great year for recycling.

On a final note, the flip side to how much you recycle is how little you send to the landfill. Our disposal tonnage is the lowest it’s been in over 30 years. Our recycling programs can and have been implemented in cities around the world. For more info on our recycling programs please visit –

See also: Our series from the CEO’s of Major Solar Companies. Latest Post: Beyond Subsidized Solar Power: The Path to Grid Parity

Listen to Mayor Newsom’s Green 960 radio show online or subscribe to his weekly policy discussions on iTunes. Join Mayor Newsom on Facebook. You can also follow him on Twitter @GavinNewsom.

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