Your weekend getaway to San Francisco couldn’t be going any more smoothly. Sitting on the grass at Dolores Park, munching on your margherita pizza from Pizzeria Delfina, the sun shining overhead — you know this is the good life. You venture away from your friends to throw out your trash that’s accumulated, but then you see them: the daunting and colorful blue, green and black bins. As you hold your greasy cardboard pizza box, you begin to sweat. Which trash bin do you choose?
Sure, it’s obvious the leftover pizza crust goes into the green compost, but what about the pizza box? Does it belong in the blue recycling bin? But what about those nasty grease stains? Can you recycle the cardboard even though it’s contaminated? Should it go into the black waste container? The sorting concept seems all so simple, yet alas, here you stand perplexed by the small guideline stickers affixed to the bins’ lids. You wonder, “Why did no one back home in Los Angeles ever teach me how to separate my food waste? If I choose the wrong bin, are the trash police going to pop out to arrest me?”
Thankfully for you, no, the San Francisco police won’t be handing out trash tickets any time soon. Surely, President Donald Trump would have a heyday tweeting about that.
But this doesn’t mean that San Francisco has been slacking on its Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance, passed in 2009. The ordinance requires all residents and businesses in the city to separate their recyclables, compostables and trash in the hope that by 2020 the city will reach “zero waste” — meaning it will send no discards to the landfill. As of 2016, the city had already diverted 80 percent of its wastes by collecting more than 600 tons of food scraps and yard trimmings daily.
This large-scale feat was achieved because individuals changed their behaviors, and San Francisco’s legislature, too, was willing to invest in waste management infrastructure. The city’s waste management contractor, Recology, collects all waste and then processes it in a town 50 miles outside the city. At the processing facility, machines grind the discards until a physical and chemical consistency is achieved at which microbes can optimally devour the yummy mixture.
From that point onward, the natural organic fertilizer is shipped out to nearby agriculture and viniculture businesses, landscapers and residents. Instead of the food rotting away in an overflowing landfill where it usually would release methane and contribute to global warming, the organic wastes are instead fully recycled back into the Earth!
So why aren’t more city legislatures in the United States following San Francisco’s model? When it comes down to it, trash isn’t exactly the sexiest of topics in politics, so it is typically overlooked. But that does not mean that we as individuals cannot alter our own behavior while we wait on politicians. Come on SoCal, we can’t let NorCal win this battle. Take matters into your own hands: Reduce your waste expenditures and put pressure on local city legislature to step it up.
First things first — become better educated. Read articles, learn what can and cannot be composted and recycled, find out what really happens to your waste after the garbage man collects it and understand that waste simply does not poof away into the abyss as we often like to think.
Next, start a composting bin in your home and reuse that fertilizer in your garden or donate it to a local school if you don’t have one. If the thought of getting your hands dirty seems a tad too daunting, you can always cut back on the amount of waste you expend. Use reusable plates instead of paper ones, bring your cloth bag to the store instead of purchasing a plastic one, buy the imperfect-looking produce in the market — I promise the food will taste just as sweet!
In the United States, where it is estimated that nearly 70 billion pounds of food waste is lost yearly, minor individual actions can make a world of difference. So go for it, start saving the world. If you have any desire to combat climate change and reduce the Texas-sized pile of garbage floating in the Pacific, or even if you just want to save a few bucks, change your consumption habits. Reduce your personal waste by educating yourself so that the next time you stumble across those blue, green and black bins you’ll know what to do and won’t panic.
And to answer that looming question, if the pizza box is covered with grease or cheese, into the compost it goes, please!
Alexandra Wayne is a Los Angeles native and an undergraduate student studying society and environment at UC Berkeley.