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Zero-Waste Goals: As Landfills Reach Capacity, San Francisco Leads an Alternative Charge in Handling Waste

Zero-Waste Goals: As Landfills Reach Capacity, San Francisco Leads an Alternative Charge in Handling Waste
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For more two decades, the number of landfills in the U.S. has steadily dropped, from 7,924 in 1988 to 1,654 in 2005, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).(1) One key reason for the decline is that many of them are reaching capacity. According to the latest waste statistics from the EPA, Americans produce over 250 million tons of municipal solid waste. That is roughly 4.43 pounds of trash per person per day. Waste Management noted in its 2006 annual report that the weighted average lifespan for all of their operated or owned landfills totals only 28 years.(3)

Landfill Expansion

One possible solution is landfill expansion, though the amount that landfills can be expanded is limited. This has been a viable solution for some landfills that have approached capacity, such as the Cherry Island landfill in Wilmington, Delaware. In late 2012, a 20.7 million cubic yard expansion was completed by environmental remediation company, Sevenson Environmental. The expansion is expected to extend the lifetime of the Cherry Island landfill by 20 years, according to Sevenson Environmental CEO, Michael Elia, in an interview with Dredging Today.

While landfill expansion is a valid option, it may not be realistic for all landfills, especially those in densely populated metropolitan areas.

Strea​mlining What's Sent to Landfills

One clear and effective solution is to decrease the amount of trash that we send to landfills each year. While people may not be able to do much about the amount of waste they create each day, they can control how it is disposed. This solution has been put to the test in San Francisco in recent years and it appears to be working. In a recent interview with PBS NewsHour, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee proudly touted the city's 80 percent landfill diversion rate, which is the highest of any city in North America.

San Francisco achieved this milestone by legally mandating all businesses and residents recycle and compost appropriate items. They have additional collections for compostable and recyclable waste, and trash auditors randomly inspect bin contents to be sure that waste is correctly sorted. According to PBS, residents can be fined anywhere from $100 to $1,000 for not properly sorting their trash, with the goal to become a zero waste city by 2020.

Infrastructure Updates

The city has adapted their entire infrastructure to meet waste diversion goals. Recology, the private garbage collection company that has served San Francisco for 80 years, has heavily invested in state-of-the-art composting and recycling facilities to accommodate the increased demands caused by the landfill diversion initiative. The company recently rebranded, changing its name from Norcal Waste Systems to Recology, to better represent the demands of modern waste management, according to a company press release. To manage the growing amount of compost waste, Recology built a 22-acre facility northeast of the city where yard clippings and food scraps are transformed into nutrient-rich soil, which is then used by farms throughout California, according to PBS NewsHour.

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