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It All Adds Up

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I remember when I first started college. At the time, I was so sick of school that I announced proudly and quite emphatically to my parents that I was going to get through college in three and a half years. And I was able to do it. After about six years, I finally used the last amounts of the three and a half years I had dedicated to college.

I know my math is a bit “dodgy,” but it seems to be no less self-serving than the City of San Francisco announcing that it is abandoning its goal to get to zero waste by the year 2020. And now the city’s new mayor, London Breed, has announced new goals for the year 2030.

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According to an article on, “The fresh plan concedes that ‘zero waste’ isn’t happening by 2020. ‘That is a date-specific goal, and it is unlikely that we will reach that goal,’ says Charles Sheehan, chief policy and public affairs officer for the San Francisco Department of the Environment. ‘But there’s a lot going on to continue moving towards zero waste.’”

Just two short years ago, San Francisco was being lauded for its zero waste efforts. This was on CNBC:

In the video, zero waste is described as “an idea that means sending next to nothing to landfills or incinerators.” The CNBC story mentioned nothing of the amount of recyclables that were being sent to China…which could be why the city’s “nerve center for all of its recyclables” is at the Port of San Francisco.

Getting back to the Wired article, the website reports, “San Francisco has made massive strides towards its objectives, despite falling short in the end. By 2012, San Francisco had managed to recycle, compost, or reuse 80 percent of its waste—the highest rate of any US city; the countrywide average around that time was 34 percent. To get that far, the city relied on high-tech sorting and composting facilities. Now the San Francisco Department of the Environment says that if every resident sorted their waste into the right bins, the city could keep about 90 percent of its waste out of landfills.”

There’s no mention of the metrics San Francisco used to measure that it had recycled, composted, or reused 80% of its waste by 2012 (does shipping recyclables to China count as that material truly being recycled?) or any other metrics it plans to use from this point on.

San Francisco’s new goal is to reduce the amount of waste generated per person by 15%. It would like to reach that number by the year 2030 and cut in half the amount of trash being landfilled or incinerated.

I applaud the City by the Bay’s commitment and I support their efforts. I’m also hoping this time around that they won’t be using math that’s similar to my six years of three and a half years in college.

Should we have standard metrics for measuring zero waste? Where should we start?

Please let me know your thoughts in the comment section below. GX_bug_web

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  1. Arturo, good article and good points. We certainly should have standard (municipality to municipality) metrics for measuring waste streams (period). When we’re measuring waste the same way, then we’re speaking the same language; obviously then we’ll all know when a peer actually achieves the zero waste mark (a lofty goal to be sure). It’s hard to know whether San Francisco deserves a pat on the back or a kick in the ass simply because of their own unique way of measuring. They appear to be trying and that’s laudable, but also need to be truly transparent and using best/sharing best practices.

  2. Hi Arturo,

    This is a fantastic article! I love the humor and message.

    I’m surprised there isn’t much on zero-waste metrics that can be found upon a quick web search… Eco-cycle Solutions Hub seems to be a prominent leader. Here’s their roadmap to zero-waste for communities:

    They don’t have any specific metrics that I could find, and I think more emphasis should be on the source reduction of upstream waste generation, rather than recovering materials downstream.

    California Recycles has a nice hierarchy that I agree with:

    Thanks for all you do. Keep up the good work!

    Carl Diethelm- Outreach Coordinator
    Rutland County Solid Waste District
    2 Greens Hill Ln,
    Rutland, VT 05701

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