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Simplifying both the message and the process has worked wonders for San Francisco.

When New York officials announced a plan for a citywide composting program a couple weeks ago, much of the negative response could be summarized with the word ick. The idea of rotting food scraps smelling up the city and attracting insects and rodents along the way didn't sit well with everyone. One building superintendent told the Daily Beast that getting residents to separate out their leftovers would be a "nearly impossible" task.

Notwithstanding a natural human resentment for more work, the fact that many other major U.S. cities have adopted composting programs shows just how possible the task can be. San Francisco, for instance, now claims to divert 80 percent of its waste from landfills through mandatory recycling and composting initiatives — despite initially hearing the same complaints that are circling New York.

The trick to overcoming the doubters, says Guillermo Rodriguez, a policy director and spokesman for San Francisco's Department of the Environment, is simplifying both the message and the process. "Success really is making it simple, making it easy for a customer or resident to separate out recyclables and their compostable materials," he says. "The simpler you can do that, the greater success any city's going to have diverting waste to landfill."

San Francisco's composting program relies heavily on financial incentives. City residents have three trash cans: a black one for landfill waste, a blue one for recyclables, and a green one for compost matter. Those who produce less landfill waste can get a smaller black bin and pay a lower collection bill as a result — roughly $28 to $21.50. (Businesses also pay less if they waste less, though their landfill garbage is measured in weight, not bin size.)

But in addition to the monetary factor, San Francisco pushes its clear message, says Rodriguez. The city's outreach programs emphasize that people have long been throwing out their pizza crusts and banana peels; the only difference in the composting era is the color of the bin they use. The same thing goes for apartment tenants: instead of walking one bag down to the chute or trash room, now they have to walk down two.

"A lot of it is simply saying to folks: it's the same items that you put into your trash can now," says Rodriguez. "All we're asking you is to separate those out into a different can."

Of course, in a dense city like San Francisco, space becomes a problem in addition to smell. Using three trash bins instead of one might be simple, but finding space for three bins in a 150-square-foot micro-apartment might not. Additionally, renters don't always have the financial incentive, since their building often foots the trash bill.

So San Francisco has a whole sub-campaign directed at apartment buildings. Officials provide tenants with special kitchen composting pails and hold information sessions in building lobbies. Recology, the company that collects waste for the city, provides building managers with new composting bins whenever their current ones get a little too funky. New buildings are also being designed with zero-waste in mind, meaning they'll include green elements like non-landfill trash chutes.

Beyond that, says Rodriguez, the city reduces the "ick" factor by keeping residents up to speed on what comes of their efforts. A lot of people are satisfied to learn that their waste becomes compost in the vineyards of Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Partnerships with hotels and local sports teams also aim to embed the recycling and composting concepts in the public mind. 

San Francisco still has a ways to go: about half of what folks put into their black bins belong in either the blue or green bins. But that just inspires officials to try new incentives; right now, the city is considering a new tier of compliance that would have people pay even less money if they don't use a black bin at all some weeks. In the end, says Rodriguez, trial and error is a necessary part of the urban composting process.

"There isn't any one perfect example," he says. "From a cities perspective, it really is about embracing the concept of zero waste and messaging that across the board."

Top image: Alison Hancock /Shutterstock.com

About the Author

Eric Jaffe
Eric Jaffe

Eric Jaffe is the former New York bureau chief for CityLab. He is the author of A Curious Madness and The King's Best Highway.

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