Food Recycling Law A Hit In San Francisco

Correction Oct. 21, 2009

We reported that San Francisco's new city law requiring residents to compost food waste is the first program of its kind in the nation. Seattle was actually the first city to require all households to compost food waste. The Seattle law went into effect last April, but Seattle exempts businesses, restaurants and apartment buildings from the law. San Francisco is the first to mandate that all residents, plus businesses, restaurants and multidwelling units like apartment houses compost waste.

A front loader moves food waste in the Organics Annex. i i

hide captionA front loader moves food waste in the Organics Annex, the headquarters of San Francisco's food waste operation.

Courtesy of Recology
A front loader moves food waste in the Organics Annex.

A front loader moves food waste in the Organics Annex, the headquarters of San Francisco's food waste operation.

Courtesy of Recology

Other Ways To Recycle Food

In his new book, author Tristram Stuart explains the innovative approaches some Asian countries take to dealing with food waste -- such as recycling it as livestock feed. Read more.

Composting Tips

Don't live in San Francisco? Here's how to compost independently:

Bin: Keep food waste in a bin with a ventilated lid in your kitchen; then mix it with yard waste and soil in a compost bin outside. After several months, the broken-down concoction can be returned to the garden or the ground.

Foods: First-time composters should stick to innocuous items such as coffee grounds, tea bags, vegetable and fruit scraps and corn husks. Greasy foods, dairy products, meat scraps and bones will make the pile stink and could attract critters.

Nonfoods: Incorporate yard waste into the pile; grass clippings, leaves, shrub waste and wood chips work well. A mixture of wet and dry items will help the pile break down faster.

Maintenance: To thrive and decompose, a compost pile requires oxygen and a good carbon-to-nitrogen ratio. Periodically mixing up the compost with a shovel, adding shredded cardboard to the pile and making sure the bin gets adequate ventilation can help in these two areas.

Temperature: Compost decomposes best when it's between 90 and 135 degrees Fahrenheit. Retain heat by keeping your pile in the sun. Purchase a black compost bin or buy an insulation jacket for your bin.

Sources: composters.com, sierraclubgreenhome.com, composting101.com

— Rose Raymond / NPR

Tossing food scraps in your garbage can is a crime — at least in San Francisco.

A brand-new city law requires residents to discard food waste in a separate bin.

It's the first program of its kind in the nation, and so far, it's a mandate San Franciscans seem to relish. In fact, many residents and landlords began implementing the law before it took effect, using their city-provided food recycling bins to separate waste.

Cutting Down On (Stinky) Refuse

After enforcing a food waste rule, the garbage room in the basement of the Cathedral Hill Plaza apartments in San Francisco is no longer a malodorous sty.

"It doesn't smell so bad," says Linda Corso, the apartment manager. "Our trash room doesn't stink like it used to."

That's because none of the wet garbage, the food waste, goes down there anymore, Corso says. Instead, food scraps go into sealed compost bins that get picked up by the city. Corso says the program has significantly trimmed the building's garbage costs.

"We used to have two bins picked up every day," she says. "Now we're down to one bin every day. So we've cut that in half."

Garbage officials in the city have been stunned and heartened by the tons and tons of food waste that is already streaming in.

After picking up curbside food scraps, garbage trucks head to the south of the city to the Organics Annex, the heart of the citywide food waste operation.

Jared Blumenfeld, the city's environmental officer, says the Organic Annex is already processing about half of the city's food waste, which is more than 500 tons per day.

"You can see a lot of lettuce, tomatoes, old apples, rotten cabbages," Blumenfeld says. "You get a kind of vivid picture here of what's being thrown away."

San Francisco turns all of that food refuse into compost, which is then sold to Bay Area farms and vineyards. The program is the latest effort in one of the most aggressive recycling campaigns in the nation. San Francisco currently keeps 72 percent of its garbage stream out of the landfill by recycling cans, bottles, construction material and cooking oil. Blumenfeld says that even though the program officially launches Wednesday, he's not surprised by how many people are already fully participating.

'Not Rocket Science'

"We hear a lot about climate change, and what we can do and should do, and what's happening in Congress," Blumenfeld says. "But people want to know what they can, practically, do every single day, and composting your food scraps is probably the single most effective thing you can do as a citizen in the United States today."

Blumenfeld says composting is simpler than it may seem.

"This is not rocket science," he says. "This is putting some food scraps into a different pile and then turning it into compost. If we can't do that, then I really worry about our ability to do some of those more complex things."

The city can fine people for noncompliance, but officials say they are unlikely to use that power except in extreme cases. San Francisco's ultimate and fairly lofty goal — according to Blumenfeld — is to get to zero waste, meaning no garbage at all going into landfills, by the year 2020.

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