A look at waste teaches us how we should be more active consumers in choosing less wasteful products and containers.
In order to improve our waste-management, it’s a great idea to be looking at successful case studies in waste management to apply to Japan. There are many similarities here with the Kamikatsu, Tokushima Zero-Waste town model, but on a much larger scale. This Recology operation is one of the most successful examples worldwide.
At the end of 2019, I had the opportunity to visit the waste recycling and sorting facility in San Francisco as I got a special tour with PR Coordinator Robert Reed. Here is the transcript and audio of our talk as we walked around the facility.
JJ Walsh 0:01
Hi, I’m JJ Walsh. So I just got back from a great trip for two weeks in California. And one of the highlights of my trip was visiting this recology Recycling Center in San Francisco. Robert Reed, who’s the PR manager there gave me the tour around and explains so many things about their targets, machinery, labor, and all the interesting things that make recology. so successful. Recology has now spread to other locations across the west coast, and been very successful in reducing the amount of waste.
One of the key factors is 100% composting. Recology collects from the curbside just like all the other trash, the composting, and makes it into amazing soil, which then is wanted and used in cover crops and farms and agriculture and vineyards around the California area. So that is also an added boost to the economy.
It creates a lot of jobs, it creates benefits to the environment, and benefits to society. So I was very impressed by how effective recology is in so many different areas. And I think there’s a lot we can learn by what happens to our trash after we put it in the bin. It also gives us an insight into how we as consumers can change the way we buy things and choose things which are easier to recycle and not choose things which cannot be recycled or very difficult to recycle.
So I think this kind of information can really inform us as consumers, especially as we’re going into that Christmas buying season that we should really be choosing things in reusable containers, or recyclable containers and choosing less plastics. So I hope you enjoy this tour. And please make sure to write your questions and comments below. And I promise to reply.
I had wanted to visit this facility for many years after visiting the zero waste sorting station in Kamikatsu in Tokushima, Japan, which also has zero waste targets, but only 1500 people in the community. San Francisco’s recology is recycling waste from more than a million people every day.
Robert Reed 2:45
I don’t think you’ll find another recycling plant in the United States that does that.
JJ Walsh 2:49
So you said 615 a day?
Robert Reed 2:52
650 a day
JJ Walsh 2:56
for recycling? So this is all from the blue bin Recycle Bin.
Robert Reed 3:01
We use modern recycling equipment, and hand sorting by recycling workers. Okay. And we’re able to achieve that in this plant, which is highly unusual. One of the reasons we’re able to achieve that, yeah, is because unlike other cities, we’re collecting the food scraps separately. And so there’s no banana peels here. There’s no coffee grounds with chicken bones here.
What you get here as well, as you can see is a lot of cardboard from online shopping, and a lot of computer paper and office paper. And then bottles.
So, here’s a number for you. Globally, we’re consuming 1 million plastic bags a minute. Let that one sink in. Okay, well, it’s worse than crazy, because there’s a lot of sea life that is dying because of that. There’s a lot of a lot of problems associated with plastic bags, and people only use them for about 10 minutes. So we’re, you know, so a lot of places that are trying to ban them. And there’s a lot of people that are using tote bags, reusable Canvas bags, and we’re trying to get away from this overconsumption of plastic bags
JJ Walsh 4:20
single use, yeah. Crazy. People are seeking sustainability in travel, as well as where they live. It’s important to everybody
Robert Reed 4:29
not just travel but in how they spend their consumer dollars. People are trying to send a message with their consumer dollars to the marketplace.
JJ Walsh 4:38
And it’s working, I think, I think it’s putting pressure on the industry.
Robert Reed 4:43
The more that we do the more we’ll see.
JJ Walsh 4:47
So how many people to give a general sense how many people are in your, your reach for this collection right here. How many
Robert Reed 4:59
Population of San Francisco is at 900,000 inhabitants. But then you’ve got a lot of people commute into the city. So on a weekday by 12 o’clock, you’ve got a million and a half people in San Francisco,
JJ Walsh 5:12
because of the visitors as well as residents?
Robert Reed 5:14
JJ Walsh 5:15
Robert Reed 5:16
Some are white, some are clear, some are yellow, some are black.. plastic, and two liter water bottles that are plastic.
JJ Walsh 5:37
Plastic we see here is being recycled in America or are you still shipping some off to other countries for recycling?
Robert Reed 5:47
Well, of the 14 different materials to be recycled here. Seven are plastic. And we some of the plastics go to domestic locations. And some of them go to Indonesia and Malaysia.
JJ Walsh 6:05
And they are recycling it there?
Robert Reed 6:09
Do you know how many types of plastics have been brought to the marketplace since plastic went industrial in 1950?
JJ Walsh 6:14
Robert Reed 6:16
More than a thousand!
JJ Walsh 6:19
What?! And you’re talking actual material is different? [Yes.] Why? There’s just been no standardization in plastics?
Robert Reed 6:32
No, even the opposite.
JJ Walsh 6:33
Very bad planning.
Robert Reed 6:35
JJ Walsh 6:37
Why? Why isn’t it regulated like other industries…
Robert Reed 6:40
the plastic lobbies are very strong. They’re called big plastic. There was efforts this summer to advance some regulation here in California. And when there were meetings at the legislature, environmental groups would send three or four representatives and the plastic industry would send 25 lobbyists. So they’re very influential in in knocking down and fighting any kind of regulation. I’m going to show you I told you we recycled seven different kinds of plastic in this plan. I’m going to show them to you. Okay, one at a time. These are plastic water bottles for one day in San Francisco. Number one, plastic water and soda bottles. It’s called tea tea. Okay, so these are the some of the harder plastics like the detergent bottles that we talked about. Right? There’s also some black plastic trays in here.
JJ Walsh 8:00
Like food trays. Yeah, but
Robert Reed 8:01
you see, that’s a hard plastic. There’s a jug here, right. And another jug here from something called Sweet Tea. And then there’s a Kirkland, you know, that’s a laundry detergent. So these are you know, some of the more rigid there’s somebody ice cube tray, and kind of harder, stiffer plastics. Right.
Now, you see a lot of the five gallon containers here, right? Yep. milk crates. Here’s another five gallon container. really tough. rugged, stiff plastic.
These are opaque plastics, like those one gallon milk jugs. And two liter water bottles that people would I guess they buy a big water bottle and put it in their refrigerator he can see how many of them there are. That color is opaque. So that’s number four. Okay.
Can you see says milk on here? dairy, right. If you buy your milk in a glass bottle is more healthy. It’s a higher quality product is better for your children.
JJ Walsh 9:36
A bottle gets washed and reused, which is much better than ending up here.
Robert Reed 9:41
These are steel cans.
Olive oil there.
JJ Walsh 9:51
Easier to recycle?
Robert Reed 9:53
Absolutely. It’s a magnet we’ll pick it up off the line and it goes to a foundry and gets made into new skill product. A lot of aluminum cans in there, soda cans cat food, right a lot of aluminum. There’s other plastics, you can see other plastics inside. So we’re going to run it across the sort line. And they’re going to remove things that are not supposed to be there.
(plastic) clamshell containers, those plastic boxes that a salad might come in, or some blueberries or something like that. So these are clamshell containers, that’s a fifth kind of plastic. Most cities don’t recycle this type of plastic, we only get $1 a pound. For most cities they will send this to landfill. And I won’t buy it, I won’t buy a salad in a plastic container.
I go to the farmers market and I just try a loose has the lettuce and I put them in a canvas tote bag and bring them home make us out. So these are plastic bags.
Yeah. So this is number six in the types of plastic, plastic bags. As you can see, they don’t, they’re difficult to bail, they don’t make a nice square cube, they wrap around the recycling equipment. They’re lightweight, they wind up in the ocean, they wind up in when they when a whale beaches itself and they do an autopsy, they find 80 pounds of plastic bags, other film plastic in its stomach. People only use them for about 10 minutes. So we’re we’re really trying to encourage people to refuse plastic bags. And and just never use never take them and don’t buy them.
JJ Walsh 11:55
Is there a charge to buy plastic bags in San Francisco?
Robert Reed 12:02
There’s a charge for any type of bag in San Francisco. So that’s why when you go to a rainbow grocery, you’ll see everyone bringing their that’s one of the reasons you’ll see everyone bringing their own tote bags. Another reason is, people no longer want to support this kind of problem. They want to be part of the solution.
Now here’s plastic film. So here’s a seven kind of material. It’s plastic film, from wrap us to wrap things around pallets. But as you can see, they’re saying some material there, some sand or something. And it’s on a pallet. And it used to be they were putting metal straps over over boxes when they palletize them. But now now you can put plastic wrap around them. So we get that plastic wrap here. We try to fail it. It’s hard to find anyone to buy it.
JJ Walsh 13:08
And this is a drop off for the public to come to?
Robert Reed 13:11
Yes, this is a drop off. It’s a small operation in the back. But these are remember we showed you all the aluminum cans.
JJ Walsh 13:17
Robert Reed 13:19
When you’re bailed on, there’s nothing there but aluminum cans 100% zero. Aluminum gets. Aluminum is a magic metal. It’s lightweight, strong, it’s flexible. I wish I was made of aluminum. And so there’s a worldwide market. For aluminum it gets recycled at a higher percentage than any other beverage container.
JJ Walsh 13:44
So if a consumer has to choose what kind of drink container they should always go for aluminum, you reckon?
Robert Reed 13:50
Well, I think the best aluminum is a good option. When you’re if you’re going to go to a market and buy a cold drink. There are companies that present their beverages in glass bottles, including glass bottles that can be washed and reuse. So in Bay area we most stores carry Strauss milk, which comes in glass bottles that are then washed and reused. In Germany, a lot of the beer is sold in bottles that are washed and reused. That’s even better than recycling.
JJ Walsh 14:27
Because you don’t have to break it down. Right and make it new, right? Just wash it.
Robert Reed 14:41
These are our three bins in San Francisco. The blue bin, you see is the largest that’s for recycling. The green bin is the middle size that’s for things you can compost like your food scraps and your sticks and leaves. And then the black bin is for trash. landfills like this, that those cranes are taking the trash up to the top of the landfill. Their landfills are overflowing and incinerators are operating seven days a week, particularly since China is no longer taking plastics. China was taking half of the world’s bales of recycled plastic and they stopped.
JJ Walsh 15:26
When was it they stopped?
Robert Reed 15:27
January of 2018.
We want coffee grounds to go into composting. They’re grown in the tropics. They’re very rich in nutrients and minerals. They’re transported tremendous distances on ships that burn diesel fuel, so they have a very large carbon footprint. Yeah.
JJ Walsh 15:49
So either in your own garden..
Robert Reed 15:50
In your own garden, or from an you know, in a park are the best situation your city offers a curbside composting program and you would put them in the green bin. Right. Um, and, you know, this is why people are coming to San Francisco to see this model.
If you put them in the green bin, we will turn it into compost and get them onto a farm and a lot of good things, a whole lot of good things will happen.
But if you throw them in the garbage, some of the black bin a lot of bad things will happen. Not only will they take up space in a landfill, but when they decompose in a landfill, they produce it’s an anaerobic or an airless environment. And so they produce methane and other potent very potent greenhouse gases, which are many times more potent than what comes out of an automobile.
Yeah. So we make custom blends, for vineyards. So the this is the image. This is the finished compost. And I encourage you to look at the the thumbs there and see the small pieces on the thumbs of those hands. Very fine pieces – this is what the farmers look for – they want the smaller the pieces, the better.
So we bring some of the compost back to the city. So people can utilize it in their yards and in their home gardens. We donate a lot of the compost to community gardens and school gardens particularly important to get to school gardens so that students can learn about what I’m talking to you about.
These are the planter boxes from my backyard here in San Francisco. And you can see the compost there in the upper part of the picture. And you can see how healthy the herbs are in the lettuces and how lush and thick they are and colorful they are. Yeah, that’s because of this healthy soil.
Here you have the leaves on the line. And these are California poppies. That’s one cover crop. And then you have a blue flower. That’s a second cover crop. Mm hmm. And then you have a barley here you can see the brass. That’s the third cover crop and you see how lush and thick they are. They work together to support each other. They are not harvested. Okay? They grow these for multiple reasons. One is to cover the soil like the sleeve of my shirt protects my skin from the sun, so it’s keeping the soil from drying out, too.
These crops are engineered to hold carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere and fix it in the soil. They’re called fixers, right. And so what I’m telling you is when you put your food scraps in the kitchen pail in your kitchen in San Francisco and coffee grounds in your banana peels and your egg shells, and then you empty them into that green bin, you’re helping turn a vineyard into a carbon sink.
You’re helping turn a vineyard into a carbon magnet, you’re actually doing something about climate change. Yep. Okay, and, and we using this technique, we can sequester four tons of carbon per acre per year, sometimes more than four tonnes. That’s amazing. It is amazing. Barack Obama was very interested in this.
four tons per acre per year. Per Year and it can be more
So, I can not show you a picture of carbon in the atmosphere. But I can show you a picture of plants that pull carbon out of the atmosphere. And this is such a picture This is that same vineyard Chateaux months another tract on that vineyard Chateau Montelena doesn’t look like a vineyard.
But it it’s you can see these stakes that hold the vines and you can get a feeling for the density of that mustard. Again, it’s not harvested. It’s it’s grown to pull carbon from the atmosphere and sequestered and so and by the way, they’ll mow it Once a year and then the when the plant if they mow it, that places they cut that just compost and decomposes, goes into the sow and the roots of the mustard which grow very deep, they become food for the microbial colonies. So the soil becomes very healthy, and that the wine grapes then are, are very healthy plant is very healthy.
This is a school cafeteria in Ohio, and two teachers decided to build this recycling table in the middle of the cafeteria. So they use the San Francisco colors of green for composting, blue for recycling. They put items up above and they actually staple them on here. Because some people look up above. They also put colors down below because some people would (sort it easier).
And they even put a red bucket here. So if kids decide they’re not going to drink all their milk, then they can empty the milk into that before recycling the container.
There has been a push in the wake of China no longer taking (waste), because now the paper mills demand less than 1% impurities in the finish bin. There’s a local law in San Francisco. This is every property. Every property in San Francisco has to have a blue bin and has to have a green.
So we’re doing 650 a day in the blue bin, how many tonnes a day do you think we’re doing in the Green Bin?
JJ Walsh 21:35
The green is compost, right? Yeah. 800 tonnes?
Robert Reed 21:42
Exactly correct. You’re the first person ever to get that number, right. We’re doing 800 tonnes a day in the Green Bin.
So, what I’m telling you is that composting, curbside composting has surpassed curbside recycling in San Francisco.
JJ Walsh 21:58
Robert Reed 21:59
Right. So the city has embraced composting more than any other city in North America. So we bring the compost here. So here’s what it looks like on the inside. Right? It’s very cool. It’s got an air filtration system.
And so here’s some of the food scraps from people’s houses. And here’s some some restaurants in here some branches from yards. But if you look down along the bottom, you can see these the food scraps, they tend to sink in the pile. Now here’s a branch up here, they tend to float up in the pile. And you can see some plastic bags in there. Like here. So we need to pull those out. Right, they never should have gone in there.
JJ Walsh 22:37
Are those biodegradable plastic bags?
Robert Reed 22:40
Some are, but some are just plastic because people have a short attention span. And people make mistakes and things like when they’re using a smartphone. People go faster and they make mistakes.
JJ Walsh 22:52
Even biodegradable plastic, though, would you pull it out?
Robert Reed 22:56
Yes, we would pull it out. And we would compost it separately. So here’s a picture of a truck unloading in this facility. So this is infrastructure. This cost $19 million. Yeah, most cities don’t have this. But we have made that investment here.
You saw a lot of machines in that recycling plant. Yep. We’ve invested $20 million in this recycling plant in the last three years. So for optical sorters, you saw the robots working,
These machines are looking for plastic boxes, you see clear plastics coming down there. And then it’s letting the bottles go forward. Removing things which are not bottles.
JJ Walsh 23:55
Okay. Very smart!
Robert Reed 23:58
But recycling creates 10 times more jobs than landfill or incineration. So it’s a very important number. For this is one of the reasons why we’ve had delegations from 140 countries and seven years they want the jobs, right. So we’ve created 200 new jobs in San Francisco in 11 years. These are permanent local jobs.
When you create a job in recycling, you can lift up a whole family for several generations.
I have friends that work in this plant that did not have jobs before we opened the plant and today they’re able to send their kids to some of the best public universities in California. It’s wonderful. It’s amazing.
JJ Walsh 24:53
Yeah, it’s social equity right there.
Robert Reed 25:04
If everybody recycled in the United States, the way that San Francisco does, we would create 1.5 million new jobs. So it’s kind of ridiculous when people are running for president and they stand up in the debate, they say I’m gonna create half a million new jobs or I’m going to create 100,000 jobs, Obama stood up and said, I’m gonna create 800,000 new jobs. Well, if we just recycled, we could create double that.
JJ Walsh 25:32
And we’re not even talking about the benefit to the environment, as well, right.
So big thank you once again to Robert Reed, the PR manager of recology San Francisco, I learned so much and I now appreciate how effective recycling can be in creating jobs, improving the environment, and improving our local communities.
And I will certainly be stricter on myself when I’m Christmas shopping and shopping for groceries, trying to choose reusable containers, trying to reuse my own containers and trying to choose materials such as aluminum, metal, and glass, which can more easily be recycled. And definitely try wherever possible to not choose products made in plastic, because it’s so difficult to recycle at the moment.
I hope you enjoyed the video. Please make sure to subscribe and write your comments and questions down below and I promise to reply.