California’s Waste Reduction Plan
It has been almost 20-years since the California Integrated Waste Management Act was signed into law. This act created the California Integrated Waste Management Board and provided it with the authority and responsibilities to reduce the amount of material being thrown away. The act set a goal of increasing diversion (reuse, recycling and composting) from 10% in 1989 to 50% in 2000.

One of the driving elements of the Act was AB 939, which established a new approach to managing California’s waste stream.  AB 939 laid out tiered requirements for cities and counties – 25% diversion by 1995, and 50% diversion by 2000.  If the waste could not be diverted the bill required them to provide an environmentally safe disposal option. When AB 939 became law, California was diverting only about 10% of the more than 45 million tons of waste generated in the state. Per capita waste disposal was more than twice the national rate, and much of this waste was being disposed of in aged, unlined landfills with the potential for leaking into valuable groundwater aquifers.

The mandatory diversion percentage forced cities and counties to track disposal information much more carefully than before.  The municipalities used this information to expand recycling opportunities for their residents, which in turn led to new markets being developed for the recycled materials.  The Waste Management Board played a central role in promoting markets for recycled material. They implemented curbside recycling and then led the shift to single-stream recycling. As of 2006 the CIWMB estimates that California is diverting 54% of its waste. Now the question becomes how do we capture the remaining 46%?
Why are we throwing it all away?
While California is grappling with this question most of the rest of the states in the country don’t have a mandate for recycling, and even if they do, very few have penalties if the mandate is not achieved. The nationwide average for diversion hovers around 33%. This explains why the United States creates more waste per capita than any other country! The U.S. has 5% of the world’s population but creates 30% of world garbage.  We throw away 16% more per capita than Canadians; 26% more than Brits; and 46% more than residents of Japan.  It could be argued that individuals in those countries have at least a standard of life equal to, if not better than ours.

No matter where we live, we could all be doing a better job of capturing our wasted resources for reuse, recycling and composting. Even here in California, a state that’s taken the lead in reducing waste, over 60% of what we throw in the garbage could still be recycled or composted. It’s hard to imagine those crushed cans, crumpled papers, and plastic bottles as valuable, but many trash collectors are now making the majority of their profits from selling recyclable materials! Even those rotting food scraps can be turned into rich, valuable composts and mulches. When communities wake up to the fact that they are paying large sums to bury, burn or send away resources that have value they will begin to take a closer look at what they throw away. Until then, there are models out there to help us keep improving.
San Francisco shoots for Zero Waste
San Francisco’s recycling program is considered one of the most progressive in the nation. The city has achieved a 69% diversion rate, and the Board of Supervisors recently passed an initiative to help San Francisco reach 75% diversion citywide by 2010. The City has successfully piloted food scraps-to-compost and grease-to-fuel programs. The food scraps-to-compost is a Green Waste program that is available to all homeowners. Over 1,800 restaurants and food related businesses also participate.  

San Francisco doesn’t focus solely on conventional waste streams like green waste; they’re investigating other “wastes” as well.  One of the most innovative is the “SFGreasecycle” which converts the grease from over 75 restaurants into biodiesel for use in Muni and the City’s 1,600 diesel vehicle fleet. It is estimated that these restaurants will generate 1.5 million gallons of biodiesel. Not only will the City save $3.5 million it would have otherwise spent servicing clogged sewer lines - it will also be able to reduce the city’s carbon footprint.

San Francisco’s ultimate goal is to become a zero waste city by 2020. This will involve further increasing consumer responsibility, getting producers to take back products at the end of their useful life, and engaging more businesses. One way they’re doing this is by creating rate incentives – businesses receive discounts on their bill based on their diversion percentage. Perhaps the biggest challenge is getting manufacturer’s to rethink the way they design products so that they last longer and all of their component’s can ultimately be reused, recycled or composted. As Jared Blumenfeld, the Director of San Francisco’s Department of Environment, points out, “Waste doesn’t need to exist. It’s a design flaw.”  

If a City the size of San Francisco can reduce waste so dramatically, just think what your community can do!
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