San Francisco made history in 1996 by being the first big city in North America to launch a curbside food scrap collection program for composting. The City requires all its residents and businesses to properly separate compostables and recyclables to keep them out of the landfill.
San Francisco partners with Recology, a San Francisco-based resource recovery company that collects food scraps and other compostables from homes and businesses, transforms the collected compostables into finished compost which is then distributed to local farms to help them grow healthier food and save water.
San Francisco’s composting and recycling model has been so successful that it was replicated by many cities around the State of California, the U.S., and the world. Inspired by San Francisco, France just reached a major milestone by passing a new law that came into effect on January 1, 2024 making composting mandatory nationwide.
At the last FACCSF Sustainability Committee meeting in December, MerciSF had the chance to meet Robert Reed, composting champion and spokesperson for Recology, to learn about the many benefits of composting and how San Francisco’s urban composting model is inspiring the rest of the world.
Can you tell us why composting is so important?
Robert Reed: Composting has so many benefits.
First, it keeps compostable materials out of landfills and reduces emissions of methane.
When the finished compost is applied to farms, orchards, vineyards and grasslands, it improves soil quality by sequestering carbon and enriching soil with nutrients and minerals that feed microbial colonies in topsoil, ultimately helping farmers grow healthy crops with fewer commercial fertilizers. Farms and ranches also use compost to grow mustard and other cover crops that help protect precious topsoils from erosion.
The Rodale Institute reports that farms using regenerative farming techniques, such as applying compost, can grow 30 percent more food during drought compared to conventional farming Farming Systems Trial – Rodale Institute.
Compost also helps save large amounts of water. Compost is a natural sponge that attracts and retains water. When compost holds moisture in topsoil, it improves soil health and plant growth, and also helps to reduce the risk of fire. “Where plants are green and soil is moist, fire has nothing to feed on,” says regenerative farmer Matthew Engelhart.
Composting also improves recycling programs. When food scraps are collected separately, they don’t contact recycled paper. That helps cities produce higher-quality bales of recycled paper.
Less known, composting creates three times more jobs than landfilling.
Finally, composting helps cities make significant progress toward achieving Zero Waste.
Educating residents and business owners on these benefits is absolutely key in ensuring a high participation in composting practices.
Why is composting at home essential and easy?
RR: According to climate experts, composting is one of the easiest ways for humans to help slow down climate change. Allowing food waste to decompose in landfills creates methane, a greenhouse gas dozens of times more potent than carbon dioxide, and landfills are the third-largest source of methane in the U.S..
According to the EPA, food scraps and yard waste account for more than 30 percent of a typical waste stream. We are talking about almost 1/3 of our garbage that could not only be kept from the landfill but that has the potential to create natural, finished compost that is so beneficial to our planet and our health.
In cities like San Francisco, it is very easy for residents to compost at home. The city gives free composting pails to help residents dispose of their food scrap in their kitchen. Homes are also given green bins for the curbside collection of all compostable materials (food scrap and yard trimmings such as leaves and wood sticks).
How does the San Francisco’s composting program work?
RR: Residents and businesses place their compostable materials in the green bins that are designated for curbside composting collection.
All properties have this green curbside composting collection bin as part of the standard 3-bin service in San Francisco, and green bins line every block on collection day. Every week, neighborhood route trucks from Recology pick up the collected materials from the green bins at city homes. Recology empties curbside composting bins more frequently at apartment buildings and businesses.
Through the curbside recycling and composting collection programs, the city collects nearly 1,000 tons of recyclable and compostable materials every day, helping to divert \most of the city’s waste from landfills.
All the food scraps are turned into high-quality compost in just 60 days at Blossom Valley Organics North, an outdoor composting facility east of the city, and then sold to local farms, vineyards and orchards within 100 miles of the facility. That is a very local loop. Food scraps should go back to farms, where they originally come from, as finished compost, and help them grow healthier food and save water.
What has contributed to the success of San Francisco’s urban composting program?
RR: Mandatory participation was a huge driver. San Francisco passed an ordinance, a local law, in 2009 making it mandatory for all properties to participate in the curbside recycling and composting collection program.
We offered free composting pails, bin labels, signs, multilingual trainings and toolkits for commercial buildings. Many different languages are spoken in San Francisco, so we opted to put photographs on the green bins (in addition to a few words in English, Spanish, and Chinese), showing what can and can’t be composted. We also produce a customer newsletter filled with articles about the benefits of composting and recycling. I also work to get stories published about restaurants embracing composting and vineyards relying on compost from the city. There are also occasional penalties from the city for those not adhering to the guidelines.
In addition to highlighting the environmental and social reasons to compost at the curb, the City of San Francisco charges lower rates for composting and recycling than for landfilling. The Residential Rate Calculator shows that the monthly charge at a residential property for a 32-gallon curbside composting bin is $7.33. That is half the cost of the same size landfill bin. Commercial customers also qualify for diversion discounts by recycling and composting and reducing the size of their landfill bin.
The key to composting success is also getting children on board. The best way to get adults to compost is to get composting programs running in schools. Recology donates compost to school gardens, which makes a big impression on children. Children go home and ask their parents ‘Why don’t we compost at home?’ The very next day there is a composting pail on the kitchen counter, and they’re rolling with it.
We are actively keeping composting part of the discussion in San Francisco by leading community and classroom presentations, publishing articles, and highlighting composting on social media.
Can you tell us what happens to the finished compost?
RR: The finished compost is applied onto farms, vineyards, orchards and grasslands which improves soil health, increases soil production and leads to the production of healthier food. It has been shown that farms that use compost grow more nutrient dense produce.
As mentioned earlier, finished compost also helps sequester carbon deep in the soil, especially when used to grow cover crops that shade topsoil and increase photosynthesis.
At the last FACCSF Sustainability Committee event in September, John Wick of the Marin Carbon Project presented in-depth research showing that applying compost to grow grasslands has the potential to sequester tremendous amounts of carbon in the soil.
How did San Francisco influence the rest of California, other U.S. States and other countries around the world?
RR: The success of San Francisco’s curbside composting collection helped inspire a change in state law. Now all 400 cities and 58 counties in California must reduce the amount of compostable material they send to landfill by 75 percent. Now municipalities up and down the state are replicating San Francisco’s green bin program.
Los Angeles made curbside food scrap collection for composting mandatory in January 2023. New York City started rolling out citywide food scrap collection in February. Hundreds of cities and universities have followed San Francisco’s lead and implemented food scrap collection programs for composting.
San Francisco’s composting success is garnering international attention. We have toured delegations from 135 counties including officials, journalists, and students from Brazil, China, Italy, Taiwan, Canada, Australia, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and many more. People who study the program see that it should be replicated in many places around the world.
Can you share how France was inspired by San Francisco’s composting program, and the role you played in facilitating the introduction of the pilot program and the new composting law?
RR: In the six years prior to COVID, I volunteered for Zero Waste France on my vacation days. They organized conferences in more than 30 cities and I made presentations on San Francisco’s composting program. Some of the cities where I led presentations included Lille, Strasbourg, Toulouse, Paris, Roubaix, Nantes, Lyon, Chambery, Grenoble, and many others. Most of these visits resulted in local media interviews and coverage.
I have participated in five documentary films including Tomorrow, which played in French theaters for 42 weeks and has screened in countries around the world.
So, we helped make composting part of the discussion in France.
Mao Pininou, then Deputy Mayor of Paris, and Patrick Geoffray, then Director of Environment & Water, City of Paris, came to San Francisco to study our compost program in 2017. We worked closely together for 3 days and shared key insights. Then they introduced food scrap collection for composting in two arrondissements.
A new law just came into force in France on January 1 2024 making it compulsory to sort compostables at the source, i.e. to separate organic waste (food scraps) from residual household waste, to enable it to be recycled organically and returned to the soil, whether for agriculture or gardening.
The obligation applies to local authorities, not citizens: as public waste management service providers, they must provide all their citizens with a solution for sorting organic waste at source. It is not up to citizens to buy their own composters, but up to their local authority to offer them a sorting solution.
I am delighted to see progress made in France and this new law brings a lot of hope to reduce waste and increase composting practices.
Tremendous credit is due to the hardworking staff at Zero Waste France, which made municipal composting programs part of the discussion in France and is helping lead the way on implementation. You can read more about zero waste programs in France on this website.
Any final thoughts you would like to share with our readers?
RR: How do you solve a complex problem? Bring forward the right combination of solutions. One is composting our food scraps. Another is applying compost to both farms and grasslands.
Let’s give back to nature what nature gives us through a local and circular composting model.
Merci Robert Reed