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April 18th, 2016
Education • Cities • Energy

San Francisco’s Zero Waste 2020 target

San Francisco has long been a leading light in green policies and it set itself a challenging target in 2003: achieving zero waste to landfill by 2020. Through a series of legislative measures that encourage citizens and businesses to recycle their garbage and compost, the city believes that it will achieve its goal.

The initiative

The legislation that enacted San Francisco's intention was Resolution No. 002-03-COE - March 6, 2003. It states that “the Commission on the Environment adopts a date for achieving zero waste to landfill by 2020 and directs the Department of the Environment to develop policies and programs to achieve zero waste ... in order that all discarded materials be diverted from landfill through recycling, composting or other means.” [1]

In the same year, 2003, San Francisco rolled out “the Fantastic Three”, in which it uses black, blue, and green carts for trash, recycling, and composting, respectively. By 2012, the city had become “a global leader in waste management. It has already achieved 77 percent waste diversion, the highest in the United States, with a three-pronged approach: enacting strong waste reduction legislation, partnering with a like-minded waste management company ... and working to create a culture of recycling and composting through incentives and outreach.” [2] (The city does not own its own landfill. It contracted with Waste Management to provide a landfill site in Altamont, California in 1987.)

The challenge

The California Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989 was signed into law by the Governor of California on 29 September 1989. It requires each city and county in the state to divert a quarter of its waste by 1995 and a half by 2000. In 2003, the city of San Francisco set itself an ambitious challenge: to achieve zero waste by 2020, that is, to send no waste to landfill or to high-temperature destruction facilities.

The public impact

The city had achieved an 80 percent diversion rate by 2013, at a time when the national average was about 35 percent. It is still on track to achieve its 2020 target. “San Francisco is still some way short of its 100% target, and the last mile is always the hardest.” [3] Robert Reed of Recology, the employee-owned company that collects and processes San Francisco's waste, is confident that they will make it.

Stakeholder engagement

There is close coordination between the city corporation, Recology, the union workforce and the citizens of San Francisco, who are the major stakeholders in achieving the waste reduction targets.

“The city's waste is regulated primarily by the San Francisco Department of Public Works and Public Health. The Department of Environment (SFE) is responsible for reaching the city's zero waste goals. SFE works closely with Recology ... SFE's Zero Waste team focuses on outreach, implementation of city-mandated recycling programs in sectors, and advancing waste reduction policy at the local and state level.” [4]

In 2009, after residents and businesses became accustomed to voluntary composting, the city introduced Ordinance 100-09 (The Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance), amending the San Francisco Public Works and Health Codes. It required “all persons located in San Francisco to separate recyclables, compostables and landfilled trash, and participate in recycling and composting programs”. [5]

Political commitment

Political commitment for the Zero Waste programme is evident from the various targeted legislations that the city administration has introduced over the years. In addition, the mayors have also been a strong supporters of Zero Waste, including the current mayor, Ed Lee. “All of us, as part of our culture of living here in the Bay Area, have appreciated the goals of our environment and climate change and are doing everything that we can. And I think the 80 percent, we’re not going to be satisfied with that ... We want 100 percent zero waste. This is where we’re going.” [6]

Public confidence

There was no information on public opinion surveys or opinion polls before the programme was launched. However, the response of citizens and businesses in San Francisco has been very positive. As of 2012, out of 18,000-20,000 companies, approximately 80 percent were separating their organics, and all buildings with fewer than six dwelling units and most of the multi-family dwellings of the city separate their organics for collection.

Clarity of objectives

The overall objective of the programme - achieving zero - waste by 2020 is exceptionally clearly expressed. The detailed objectives of the programme were stated in the policy document prepared by the city corporation:

  • “Urging The Mayor And The Board Of Supervisors Of The City And County Of San Francisco To Adopt A Goal Of 75% Landfill Diversion By The Year 2010. [7]
  • To Adopt A Goal Of Zero Waste By 2020.”

Also they were clearly measurable, although there is some debate about what the actual waste figures are.


The Zero Waste programme is legally feasible because the city has enacted a series of legislative measures to achieve the goal. There is a dedicated team in place to oversee the implementation and working of the programme along with partners to support in waste collection and disposal.

San Francisco has developed a robust collection and pricing scheme with Recology. It also has “a thriving informal recycling sector, thanks to the statewide bottle bill that places a 5 or 10 cent value on glass and plastic bottles and over 20 recycling centers in the city where residents or collectors can redeem them”. [8]


The Zero waste programme has a strong management team comprising experts in operation, outreach and technology to ensure seamless implementation. “The city’s Zero Waste division is comprised of 11employees, assigned to different waste segments. The program has one manager, four experts in commercial waste, three in residential waste, and three focused on the city government. In addition, there are several people focused on toxics reduction ... as well as a separate Outreach division.  ... In addition to the small Zero Waste team, there are separate outreach programs within SFE, employing 20 environmental advocates.” [9]


The landfill capacity, the amount of waste generated annually and the proportion of recycling were the yardsticks to measure the progress of the programme. The 2010 measurements of these indicators included the following:

  • San Francisco ‘landfilled' 15 percent less in 2010 than it did in 2009.
  • Disposal in 2010 was approximately half what it was in 2000.
  • In 2010, San Franciscans each generated 1.7 kg of waste, 77 percent of which was recycled.


In 2009 when the city passed the ordinance making recycling mandatory, the vast majority of the citizens and businesses in San Francisco were already practising it. This shows the alignment of these stakeholders to make the programme a success. In addition, Recology has been supportive of the city’s goals by installing more recycling capacity and investing heavily in recycling infrastructure.

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