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San Francisco’s Composting Ordinance Turns Waste into Wine

By Jeanne Roberts

Oct 12, 2009

Starting next week, food-waste recycling will be mandatory in San Francisco. No more banana peels and uneaten Brussels sprouts entombed in plastic in a landfill — they'll now be headed to a more useful place.

Under the city's new Universal Recycling and Composting Ordinance that takes effect Oct. 21, all residents must carefully sort their trash into recyclables (cans, bottles and paper), trash, and compostables, meaning food waste, plant trimmings, soiled paper and other items that can be converted to compost.

In keeping with the city's ultra-green image, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 9-2 earlier this year to pass the ordinance in an attempt to do away with landfills and incinerators entirely — and, in the process, to cut emissions of greenhouse gases. Landfills produce , a global warming gas that is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Food waste composting isn’t new. Many of San Francisco’s residents and restaurants already send some 400 tons of food scraps to Recology's Jepson-Prairie in Vacaville.

The now makes it mandatory. And the penalties — $100 per violation for residents, $500 for businesses — are significant enough to encourage even the recalcitrant, or merely lazy, to get in step with Mayor Gavin Newsom's goal of zero waste by 2020.

The city already diverts almost three-quarters of waste away from its landfill. According to Robert Reed, a spokesman for San Francisco collectors Sunset Scavenger Co. and Golden Gate Disposal & Recycling Co. (both subsidiaries of Recology), the food waste-to-compost is an idea whose time has come.

Want to see which communities added food scrap composting just in the last 30 days? he asks. Type "food scrap compost" into Google and click "news" at the top of the page.

The results are surprising, and Reed is right. Composting is a valuable tool that experienced gardeners use to enrich soil worn out by repeated plantings. Compost encourages microbial activity, improves soil structure and enables better water retention. In and around San Francisco, the priceless compost from Recology is used to enrich organic farms and vineyard soils, or offered for resale to garden centers and landscapers.

Compost isn’t just good for soils, though. It's also good for the environment, because making compost removes materials from the waste stream that, in landfills, contribute to the formation of greenhouse gases.

Of course, the same thing happens in a good compost pile, but during composting, the anaerobic digestion is to three weeks as compared to 30 years, meaning fewer gases are released. As Paul Hepperly, research director at the non-profit organic farming , notes:

"Conventional farming — tilling the land, using commercial fertilizers, etc. — puts 3,700 pounds of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere per acre per year. Applying compost, which helps grow 'cover crops' that draw carbon in part from the air, returns 12,000 pounds of carbon a year to the soil."

Bob Shaffer, of Soil Culture Consulting in Glen Ellen, concurs. Shaffer, who has 35 years of experience as an agronomist, horticulturist and viticulturist, and consults with dozens of Bay Area vineyards, explains:

I wish more cities would do

I wish more cities would do this. The composting program in San Francisco is really a step ahead of anywhere else.

Correction

Anaerobic decomposition is not "Accelerated" by composting.

Rather what happens is you get a whole different kind of decomposition, aerobic (oxygen requiring) decomposition, assuming you turn or tumble your compost that is. If you just let it sit there unaerated you get the same anaerobic decomposition (though, less than if it was truly sealed in a plastic bag, since air still interacts with the sides of your pile, if not the center).

If your compost smells, it means you've got Anaerobic bacteria happening, and you're doing it wrong, either not enough turning/tumbling or oxygen. Or the wrong ingredient mix (too wet, too much nitrogen).

When you do it right, and get the aerobic bacteria, which do not emit the odor.

Composting and Greenhouse gases

"Still, there’s no denying compost produces greenhouse gases."

Please check your facts; I believe that this depends on the type of composting being done.

I don't believe that Vermicomposting (i.e. composting done by worms) emits much in the way of greenhouse gases, but is slower.

Thermophilic composting (whereby the compost temperature is greatly raised through reactions with bacteria, etc) probably does though.

We Need YOUR Help!!

It is clear to me that you as well as your readership honor the small steps that every person makes in greening their home and being the stewards of their little corner of the planet. I applaud Mayor Newsom and his goal of "zero waste" by 2020. But I ask you as fellow citizens of this planet, what do you think is really meant when you said "The city already diverts 3/4 of its waste away from it's landfill". By "diversion of waste" what you really mean is that it is shipped to another landfill next to someone elses home who has their own waste to deal with.....but now they also have Yours.
Perhaps the term diversion does apply to the miriad ways in which creative and industrious people are developing technologies that create biofuels and other green biproducts from the waste that we create. However, we won't ever accomplish zero waste and eliminate those tons per annum of methane gas produced in our local landfills if we don't deal with it locally.
Your reduction of methane production through composting is only a genuine reduction when the waste that YOU produce does not decompose over a 30 year period of time in a landfill somewhere else.
Right now that "somewhere else" is a beautiful area of virgin desert 25 miles from my home where I raise my sweet daughter as conscientiously as possible in regards to Global health and Community. Help us by understanding that this is everyones responsibility. Don't let Recology turn MY HOME into a "diversion" for your waste!

Recology/Winnemucca Landfill

San Franiciscans are commended for the role they play in leading our nation in recycling.

As this article notes San Francisco has a goal to "... do away with landfills and incinerators entirely — and, in the process, to cut emissions of greenhouse gases.... Landfills produce methane, a global warming gas that is 23 times more potent than carbon dioxide. "

Citizens of Winnemucca, NV agree. No landfills. San Franciscans may be interested to note that Recology, their partner in recycling (and, general garbage management) is pushing forward on a proposal to ship 4000 TONS, PER DAY, 5 DAYS PER WEEK of Bay Area (not just SF...total Bay Area) via rail to start a landll at Jungo Road, part of the Black Rock desert. The shipments are currently targeted to go on for 95 YEARS. The shipments will include hazardous waste. The landfill, if capped at these estimates, will grow to the size of a 20 story building.

Citizens of Winnemucca do not want this landfill. Get involved and help us out:

Get informed:

Nevadans Against Garbage Facebook Group:
groups.to/nagfbgroup/

Sign the online e-statement (any age, any location)

The US address version of the e-statement:

European addresses version of the e-statement:

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