San Francisco Gets Scrappy

San Francisco Gets Scrappy -- Appetite for Life -- © Microsoft
Some years ago, San Francisco decided to trash its trash. The city instituted an innovative (and mandatory) recycling and composting ordinance whose ultimate goal, fantastic as it may seem, is to have absolutely nothing going to landfills by the year 2020 — not so much as a gum wrapper or banana peel. And it looks as if the city just may reach its goal.

"We are now diverting 80 percent of our waste from landfill — the highest waste diversion rate of any city in North America," says Guillermo Rodriguez, director of policy and communications for the San Francisco Department of the  Environment, a city and county agency devoted to ... well, to saving the world. One big step is the city's Zero Waste program, which Rodriguez proudly calls "world class."

Given the success stories coming from Zero Waste's business recycling and composting program, Rodriguez's "world class" comment is more than just hyperbole. The Orchard Hotel, near Union Square, has eliminated bottled water. Far East Cafe, a Cantonese/Szechuan restaurant in Chinatown, composts all of its food scraps and restroom paper towels, a process that keeps 81 percent of its waste from reaching landfills. Compliance is rewarded with reduced disposal costs, which means a restaurant like Far East Cafe can save some $18,000 a year.

And there's something else about the Zero Waste composting program, something even more remarkable: It could well be making the food in San Francisco's restaurants better. That's because food waste is picked up by resource recovery company Recology and sent to one of two compost facilities, where it's all brought right back down to earth.

"The food waste goes through an industrial composting process, which includes a high-temperature phase that kills off potential pathogens," says Rodriguez. "This results in a custom-blended, organic compost that is used in the agricultural and vineyard markets."

In other words, the crab shells and lettuce you leave on your plate today could be growing fruit, vegetables or herbs tomorrow. It's "waste not, want not" on an epic scale, and to see an entire city lining up behind such a sensible notion is profoundly inspiring. If the rest of the world was persuaded to follow suit, quite a few of our problems — from climate change to where to find good locally grown arugula — could be neatly and elegantly solved.

As is the case with nearly all revolutions, the global Zero Waste movement begins at home, too. Home composting is easier than you think, and if your city offers a composting and recycling program, it could benefit your local markets and restaurants in the long run. Guillermo Rodriguez offers these tips on home composting:

- Use a soiled cardboard to-go container or a milk carton to store your compost. (Yes, milk cartons are compostable.) Or you can use a metal container to hold your compost, rinsing it out in the sink as necessary.

- Line your compost bin with newspaper or compostable bags purchased at the store. (Make sure they are certified "compostable.")

- An extra tip for those with a sensitive nose: You can freeze your compost! Freezing compost keeps leaks and smells contained.