THE BLOG

Zero Waste in San Francisco and New York: A Tale of Two Cities

03/28/2016 08:21 am ET | Updated Mar 28, 2016
  • Steven Cohen Executive Director, Columbia University's Earth Institute

One of the goals of a sustainable city is to effectively manage material flows into and out of the city. Garbage, or what environmental engineers call solid waste, presents some of the most difficult challenges to urban sustainability. San Francisco may well be on the way to achieving their goal of "zero waste," or to divert all of its garbage away from landfills. Currently, San Francisco diverts 80% of its waste away from landfills. According to New York Times reporter Matt Richtel: "San Francisco also has a world-class reputation for its composting processes, which turns food waste into fine, coffee-like grounds that is sent to farms as fertilizer." And he observes that San Francisco is the "Silicon Valley of recycling."

The city and county of San Francisco's SF Environment department has set a goal of zero waste by 2020. That formerly future-sounding date is just four years away. According to the department, about half of the waste now placed in non-recycle bins could be recycled, which would drive the waste diversion rate to 90%. According to the department's website:

To achieve 100 percent zero waste, SF Environment will continue to advocate for state legislation and partner with producers to develop a producer responsibility system, where producers design better products and take responsibility for the entire life-cycle of a product, including take-back and recycling.

The city's zero waste policy includes three goals: 1. prevent waste; 2. recycle and compost; and 3. safely handle toxics. San Francisco's unique political and social culture must be seen as a major factor contributing to this program's success. People in that city behave as if reducing waste and recycling are important social behaviors. In contrast, New York City's waste diversion rate is 16%. The goal is to get to zero waste by 2030. It's a little difficult to see how that goal will be achieved. The city's target for FY 2016 is 19%, but according to the NYC Mayor's Management report, the actual diversion rate is anywhere from 1.2- 2.9% below target.

Any casual look at New York City's public recycling bins will provide a sense of the difficult road New York must travel to reach anything approaching zero waste. Paper bins are filled with bottles and the bottle bins are filled with a wide variety of unsorted waste. Northern Californians may be thoughtful about waste disposal, but New Yorkers can't be bothered. It is not clear that New York is capable of a cultural shift deep enough to achieve the diversion rates already reached in San Francisco.

Each city is different, and New York's pace, diversity, and size make comparisons to San Francisco difficult. Still, large-scale behavior changes can be achieved with leadership, strategy and creativity. New York City has eliminated indoor smoking in public places. New Yorkers have learned how to comply with alternate side of the street parking rules and some are even learning how to stop jaywalking. So it is possible that waste disposal behaviors could change. But it will take leadership and the sustained attention of the mayor and the media. It's unlikely to happen because garbage has little appeal as a political issue. Climate change holds conferences in Paris and attracts attention at Davos. Garbage gets a little less glamor.

In any case, behavior change alone is not sufficient. The recycled waste must actually be reused--a problem with the weak market for some recycled substances. The technology of waste sorting and the energy efficiency and cost-effectiveness of recycling also need improvement. A city's system of recycling and waste management is as important as an individual's waste disposal behavior. The technology and market will come to New York City, but probably not by 2030.

Zero waste is an element of the concept of a circular economy. In a circular economy, all waste from consumption becomes an input into new production. Inevitably there is some leakage in the tightest circular production process. But the goal is to move from a linear model of production-consumption-waste to one more closely resembling a circular model. I don't think of zero waste as an achievable operational goal, but rather as a model and an aspiration. It is a way to think about resource use and waste management, rather than an absolute target.

It requires a paradigm shift or a new way of thinking about consumption and garbage. Instead of mindlessly tossing something you have consumed into a waste bin, you sort it or consider how it might be re-used. In the case of production processes, it includes the concept of producer responsibility. The producer includes in the price of a good an incentive to bring the good back to the place of purchase or to the manufacturer. The manufacturer, in turn, designs the good to be mined for resources or to be reconfigured for additional use. Of course moving the good or material through the production process requires energy and so the closed system works best when it is powered by renewable energy.

These ideas of closed systems of production and consumption are central to the concept of the sustainable city. As the mechanization of agriculture reduces rural employment and as the Internet communicates the appeal and seductiveness of urban lifestyles, more and more of the world's population is moving to cities. This creates opportunities for more efficient production, distribution and consumption of goods and services and leads to the possibility of systems that approach the goal of zero waste.

While New York City may aspire to zero waste by 2030, at the same time the city was announcing that goal in 2015, it was also proposing a long-term deal with an upstate New York landfill to take the city's garbage for the next several decades. According to Cole Rosengren of City Limits:

A new plan to send Brooklyn's garbage upstate would solidify the city's waste export strategy for decades, but also shows how impractical the system has become. Under a newly proposed 20-year contract with IESI--a major industry player owned by Canadian company Progressive Waste Solutions--much of Brooklyn's residential garbage would be shipped to the company's Seneca Meadows landfill at a projected cost of $3.3 billion...New York has struggled to deal with its garbage in a sustainable way since the Fresh Kills landfill closed on Staten Island in 2001. According to Department of Sanitation (DSNY) data, it cost $99 to dispose of a ton of garbage in 2000 versus $145 in 2014 when adjusted for inflation.

It is clear to most experts that a system of recycling facilities, waste-to-energy plants and changed public behavior would be a more cost effective and environmentally beneficial waste management system for New York City. Unfortunately, New York can barely site marine waste transfer facilities and has been unable to build waste-to-energy plants or other elements of a more advanced waste management system. New Yorkers simply won't accept construction of those facilities in their neighborhoods. In any case, as New York's land prices rise, it becomes increasingly uneconomical to locate those facilities within the city.

The gap between San Francisco's accomplishment of 80% landfill diversion and New York's 16% is huge. New York was ahead of its time in building its water and mass transit system, but is far behind the times in dealing with its garbage. When compared to San Francisco, the two waste management systems are truly a tale of two very different cities.

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