Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Designing a Zero-Waste City: A Visit to the San Francisco Dump
Adele Peters, 3 Mar 09

With Julia Levitt

On February 20, I had the opportunity to tour the San Francisco city dump, a facility run by Norcal Waste Systems. The tour was part of Compostmodern 09, a conference sponsored by AIGA, a professional association for designers.

It might seem strange to have a group of creative types clamoring to learn from the city dump, but there are numerous good reasons why their thinking is important to the waste management process. As we've often pointed out here on Worldchanging, getting to zero waste isn't simply a question of how we deal with the garbage we've got. Much more important is how we handle things upstream, at the point where we design the stuff and systems that fill our lives. If we can design waste out of the picture, we save not only the final product that gets tossed in the trash, but also the materials, time and energy required to get it there.

Bob Besso, Waste Reduction Manager, started out by showing the audience of graphic designers several examples of packages that can't be recycled because of the combination of materials. He made a strong point about why it's important for designers to look at how any product – including packaging – will be handled, used and disposed of, and to choose materials accordingly. "One of the messages we need to get out to designers is to say, look, you have no right to put a product like that into the marketplace and force someone else to deal with it," Besso said.

He also noted the problems that the waste facility faces when recyclable materials are poorly marked. Compostable corn-based plastic (also known as PLA), is increasingly popular among businesses who want to improve their ecological footprint. But it actually causes a serious problem for sorters when it isn't clearly marked. It looks just like regular clear plastic, and if there's any doubt, it will end up being tossed out of the compostable pile. And because its composition is different from conventional plastic, PLA becomes a contaminant when uninformed users toss it in the recycling bin.

Besso led the group around the 44-acre site, where waste and compostable materials for the entire city are processed before being sent elsewhere. The facility, billed as "the greenest dump in America," by the conference materials, is certainly doing many things right. Currently, 70 percent of San Francisco's waste stream is being diverted from landfills through a combination of strategies including waste avoidance, waste reduction, composting and recycling. The city's goal is to divert 75 percent by 2010, and to achieve zero waste by 2020.

As I looked through the piles of waste at the facility, it was clear that massive changes including and in addition to good design will be necessary if San Francisco wants to reach zero. I asked Besso, who has worked with Norcal for more than 20 years, what else he thought it would take to meet their ambitious goal. Some of the most important solutions he listed:

End-of-life producer responsibility for products and packaging.
Defined: Manufacturers are held accountable for reclaiming and recycling their products at the end of their useful lives. Laws in some parts of the world, including some U.S. states, parts of Canada and parts of Europe, already require stewardship for products like computers and other electronics. Germany's well-known Ordinance for the Avoidance of Packaging Waste (Verpackungsverordung), passed in 1991, extends fees and responsibility to companies surrounding waste management of non-reusable packaging.

Changes in consumer purchasing based on upgrade-ability, repair-ability, and recyclability.
Defined: As manufacturers begin to provide more sustainable options for products, such as electronic items that can be easily upgraded rather than completely replaced, consumers have a role to play in choosing those products. Eco-labels that clearly explain environmental impact can help make choices easier, and Besso says he hopes to see a labeling system created that will rank both products and packaging for the energy, water, GHG emissions, pollution and social impacts associated with their lifecycles. Of course, consumer responsibility doesn't end at puchase: the next step is for consumers to actually repair, recycle, or upgrade used products rather than throwing them out.

Mandatory waste separation laws for waste generators.
Defined: This is fairly straightforward. Even a good waste separation facility is only useful if citizens sort their waste appropriately into recyclables, compost, etc. The numbers on recycling vary, but this 2007 Harris poll reports that 23 percent of Americans don't recycle at all. Stricter policies to enforce sorting would result in more effective public waste management.

Some form of technology to utilize waste that can't otherwise be used.
Defined: Even with a zero-waste program in place, there will ultimately be some percentage of residuals that can't be diverted to recycling, composting or reuse. Some communities choose to incinerate residuals in a waste-to-energy plant. But incineration is a controversial topic for many reasons. The development of other options that promise clean and safe methods for dealing with residuals will certainly provide interesting debate in coming decades.

Besso is openly skeptical of San Francisco's ability to achieve its goal of zero waste by 2020, but he is also one of the people working the hardest to make sure it gets close. Zero, he says, "is a good goal to shoot for."

We believe it's even more than that. In order to be realistic about our future on the planet, we need to be realistic about the limits we face and the effects of our actions, and optimistic about our abilities to adapt and solve the problems we have created. And we'll need to enlist the help of designers -- as well as business owners, policy makers, and citizens everywhere -- to realize that vision. As we've said before, the only thing to ask for is Zero. Now.

Below is a series of photos of the San Francisco dump taken February 20, 2009 by Moshe Quinn. Captions by Adele Peters.

Bob Besso, right, Waste Reduction Manager for Norcal, shows new graphics on the side of a collection truck. The images are intended to remind residents that most of what gets thrown out as garbage-- food scraps, paper, metal-- has value, and should be composted or recycled.

On the left, the "Organics Annex" was built to accommodate the growing amount of food waste. The city's composting program is the largest in the country, and began accepting food and yard waste in 1999. The majority of the compost created goes to area vineyards, and the rest to small farms and landscape suppliers. The facility has been certified organic so the compost can be used by organic farmers.

Collection trucks have a unique split design-- one side for recyclables, the other for landfill materials. The wall in between prevents contamination of the recyclables. All of the trucks run on alternative fuel (LNG or biodiesel). The trucks travel a combined 12,000 miles a day (60 miles to the landfill, 60 miles back, 100 trips a day).

The Public Disposal Area, a.k.a. "the dump," processes about 7200 tons of material from San Francisco residents and businesses each year.

Recyclable materials are separated to be taken to the material recovery facility at Pier 96. There, over 182,000 tons of material are processed each year. Of course, recycling isn't completely sustainable itself-- most of the recycled materials are shipped thousands of miles to locations around the world. The value of the material is typically decreased as it goes through the recycling process, which is also energy-intensive.

Reusable items, like furniture, are sent to local thrift stores.

Started in 1988, the Household Hazardous Waste facility was one of the first of its kind in the nation. The facility collects hazardous materials like leftover paint, motor oil from cars, thinners, spray cans, and pesticides and fertilizers. Paint is redistributed to less-affluent parts of the world in a unique program. The facility also accepts used cooking oil for the SFGreasecycle program, which manufactures biofuel for city vehicles.

All vehicles, including this forklift, run on some form of alternative fuel-- natural gas, propane, or B20 biodiesel.

In the Integrated Materials Recovery Facility, construction materials like scrap metal, wood, sheet rock, and concrete are separated for recycling.

The facility is separated from the surrounding Bayshore neighborhood by a swath of green space.

A large garden on the hill is filled with plants that have been recovered from the trash, as well as sculptures that have been created from discarded materials.

A surprise in one of the buildings next to the transfer station: the waste facility hosts an artist residency program. Intended to inspire and educate the public about resource conservation through art, the program has provided studio space, supplies, and a stipend to selected artists since 1990.

One of the current artists, Bill Basquin, is working on a series of pieces on composting.

An apron sewed from leftover caution tape.

"Tin Man," by Jim Growden.

Bookmark and Share


Since people aiming for targets like these tend not to overshoot, zero is indeed a good deal to shoot for!

Adele, I hope you found your trip to the tip as informative as I did mine about a year ago. What I picked up from our local recycling facility (run by Visy) was that:

1. a lot of the recent improvements in sorting technology arises from issues of occupational health and safety. Thus, we don't have folk hanging off the backs of garbage trucks anymore: it's all picked up automatically, and gets sorted by the company.

2. The need to automate the sorting procedure has had benefits. In the case of plastics, they use spectrophometers to sort the different types: the benefit being that they can now sort all types (1-7), and don't have to rely on the accuracy of the label.

3. What they still have difficulty doing is separating soft plastics from other waste (it tends to get confused with paper and, worse, gums up the conveyors!) So, don't put plastic bags and meat trays in the recycle bin, even if it is marked recyclable #6.

Posted by: Tony Fisk on 3 Mar 09

It is my understanding that currently San Francisco collects all plastic, bio-based or not, packs it all into a shipping container and sends it to China where they burn it for energy. If this is recycling plastic then why send it to China, why not just burn it right here. The fact is that a capturable and compostable waste stream is now possible. At the point that waste stream exists it can then be used in many ways such as incineration for power or composting.

Posted by: Steven Levine on 4 Mar 09

I look at this article in amazement... when one of the most practical solutions every developed was built back in the 1980's and apparently; all but forgotten. The facility I speak of was built in Madisonville, KY and actually made it onto a television segment of "Ripley's Believe It or Not."

I still have tapes of a walk through of the entire process... and with the advancements in technology that could be added to the front end of this process could only improve efficiencies. (The world didn't care then... it should now!)

If anyone would care to potentially view one of these tapes... contact me... I still have a couple left. I may be contacted @

Disclaimer: I do not represent any company or product with regards to this article or process thereof.

Posted by: Kurt Peet on 8 Mar 09

Raivo Pommer

Fürstenbank LGT

Als der Treuhänder Herbert Batliner im Januar seinen 80. Geburtstag nachfeierte, gab sich ein illustrer Kreis von Gratulanten aus halb Europa ein Stelldichein in Liechtenstein. Erzbischöfe und andere hohe Vertreter der Geistlichkeit waren dabei, Politiker aus Österreich, Top-Manager von internationalen Großbanken wie der Schweizer UBS, und ein Ex-Bundeskanzler. Helmut Kohl reiste persönlich an, um seinem alten Freund Batliner die Aufwartung zu machen.

Die beiden Herren kennen sich lange und gut; Batliner war eine der zentralen Figuren im deutschen Parteispendenskandal. Er soll mitgeholfen haben, Geld am deutschen Fiskus vorbei in Liechtenstein zu waschen, mit dem die bürgerlichen Parteien hierzulande die SPD von der Macht fernhalten wollten. Unter Batliners Geburtstagsgästen war auch Prinz Nikolaus, Bruder des Liechtensteiner Landesherrn Hans-Adam. Schließlich ist Treuhänder Batliner wer in seiner Heimat. Nun hilft seine Tochter Angelika dem Fürstenhaus gewissermaßen sogar aus der Patsche.

Posted by: prin star on 10 Mar 09

Let me recommend a book very relevant to this issue's discussion of garbage:
Cradle to Cradle: The Way We Make Things by
M. Braungart, W. McDonough. An important idea he makes is that in the world of recycling, we are not recycling, but downcycling. Total recycling would mean taking a product at the end of its life and turning the entire mass into a completely new product.

Posted by: chris angle on 14 Mar 09

Post A Comment

Please note that comments will remain open for only 14 days after the article is posted. While previous comments will remain visible, attempts to post new comments after this period will fail. This helps stop comment spam, so your forebearance is appreciated.

The Worldchanging comments are meant to be used for further exploration and evaluation of the ideas covered in our posts. Please note that, while constructive disagreement is fine, insults and abuse are not, and will result in the comment being deleted and a likely ban from commenting. We will also delete at will and without warning comments we believe are designed to disrupt a conversation rather than contribute to it. In short, we'll kill troll posts.

Finally, please note that comments which simply repost copyrighted works or commercial messages will be summarily deleted.

Yes No







MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg