California: San Francisco

San Francisco, California

San Francisco has a 75% waste diversion goal by 2010 and a zero waste goal by 2020. To meet these goals, it has implemented one of the most comprehensive recycling and composting programs in the country. .In 2008, this city of 1.25 million daytime residents and 600,000 businesses and institutions diverted 72% of its municipal solid waste. The heart of its success is providing a green 32-gallon wheeled toter to each of its 150,000 households for weekly collection of all types of organic discards at curbside for composting. Residents can set out their kitchen scraps, yard trimmings, soiled paper, and compostable food service ware in a green wheeled toter. Compostable plastic bags are available for sale throughout the city. Use of these bags can help remove the “ick” factor some people experience when asked to segregate their food scraps for composting. The City’s web site provides a list of where these bags can be purchased. A private service provider, Recology (formerly Norcal), collects and composts the organics.

Recology delivers all of the City’s compostable materials to The Organics Annex, where they are transferred from curbside collection vehicles to semi trucks for hauling to various compost facilities such as Recology’s Jepson Prairie compost facility in Vacaville, approximately 50 miles north of San Francisco. (All of the collection and transfer vehicles operated by Recology run on either biodiesel or liquefied natural gas.)

In addition, San Francisco has passed a number of ordinances that provide the institutional framework to support its zero waste goals. Its Food Service Waste Reduction Ordinance and its Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance are two pieces of local legislation that are facilitating collection and composting of food scraps and reducing the amount of trash destined for landfills.

The Food Service Waste Reduction Ordinance:
This ordinance, effective June 1, 2007, requires that all disposable food ware (take-out containers) used in San Francisco be either biodegradable/compostable or recyclable, unless there is no suitable product that is within 15% of the cost of non-compostable or non-recyclable alternatives. The ordinance also bans the use of polystyrene disposable food ware. All food vendors, including restaurants, delis, fast food establishments, vendors at fairs, food trucks, and all City facilities are subject to the law. Compliance is reported at greater than 80%.

There has been a big shift to paper, bagasse, and PLA food service ware, and a growth in product types and vendors marketing these. There have been some concerns regarding performance (temperature, strength and moisture issues) as well as costs, but the biggest challenge has been on product labeling. Compostable food service ware such as cutlery and plastic must be clearly labeled as “compostable.” Color-coded green printing is the most effective. A thick green band is better than text. If products are not recognizable as compostable, product users may not place them in the green toter, and even if they do end up in the green bin, workers at the compost site may screen products not readily apparent to be compostable.

The Plastic Bag Reduction Ordinance:
This ordinance calls for a plastic bag ban on two types of retailers in the city: supermarkets with gross annual sales of at least $2 million dollars and retail pharmacies with at least 5 locations under the same owner. The ordinance was effective November 20, 2007, for the supermarkets and May 20, 2008 for pharmacies. In place of plastic bags, the vendors can only provide compostable plastic bags, recyclable paper bags or reusable bags.

A “compostable plastic bag" is a bag that (1) conforms to California labeling law, which requires meeting the current ASTM-Standard Specifications for compostability; (2) is certified and labeled as meeting the ASTM-Standard by a recognized verification entity such as the Biodegradable Product Institute; (3) conforms to requirements to ensure that the renewable based product content is maximized over time as set forth in Department of the Environment regulations; (4) conforms to requirements to ensure that products derived from genetically modified feedstocks are phased out over time as set forth in Department of the Environment regulations; and (5) displays the phrase "Green Cart Compostable" and the word "Reusable" in a highly visible manner on the outside of the bag.

Furthermore, the phrase “Green Cart Compostable” must be highly visible
in two-inch high green lettering that contrasts with the background color on both the front and back of the bag. Also required is a solid green band, that is at least one-half inch thick, to circle the circumference of the bag. Acceptable is having a band of text to circle the circumference of the bag or to have alternating text and solid band to circle the circumference of the bag.

Products and Brands Composted: 

The San Francisco government website offers a listing of alternative food service ware acceptable by the City at:

Compost Process: 

Recology (previously Norcal) is one of two exclusively permitted haulers. It operates a 400 ton-per-day compost facility, the Jepson Prairie site, in Vacaville, California. Of the approximately 133,000 tons per year handled, about 40% is food waste. Recology makes custom blends for vineyards, golf courses, landscapers, and other end users. Up until recently, this site utilized the AgBag aerated static pile composting technology. Organics stayed in the bags for 30 days before being openly windrowed. After two months of active composting, the compost would be screened and cured. Today, the Jepson Prairie site is undergoing major renovations and the AgBag system is being replaced with a different forced air aerated pile technology. In addition, Recology has added a pre-treatment system that involves screening, slow-speed shredding (to help open up bags), electrical grinders (to reduce emissions) and a picking line. “Overs” from the trommel screen go the picking line and then grinding. Workers on the picking line pull out film plastics and any other material not readily recognized as compostable. “Unders” go to the composting process, commingled with the ground material. Some is set aside to be anaerobically digested at the East Bay Municipal Utilities District (MUD), a local wastewater treatment facility with digester capacity. Recology has pursued anaerobic digestion in order to increase its capacity to handle organics and reduce VOC emissions. The East Bay MUD facility is currently taking 25 tons per day with plans to increase to 100 tons per day. Recology’s pre-treatment system at its Jepson Prairie site is largely geared toward preparing material for the East Bay digester.


Department of Environment
City & County of San Francisco
11 Grove Street
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 355-3700