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San Francisco's Road to Zero-Waste: An Unthinkable Goal by 2020?

San Francisco is a catalyst for change, leading the nation by becoming the first major U.S. city to reach a "zero-waste" goal. The city recognized that the recycling of bottles and paper could no longer remedy the amount of waste being produced, so they initiated the program. They have already set an example for cities across the nation by eliminating waste by 80%, but the goal is still 100% by the year 2020.

Zero-waste bins, San Francisco, California. Black bin on left marked

What does it take to be a zero-waste city?

  •      Sending nothing to the landfill or incinerator.
  •      Recycling materials.
  •      Composting biodegradable foods and packaging.
  •      Preventing waste before it happens.

Sounds simple enough right? The challenge lies in reconditioning the population to rethink the age-old mantra of "reduce, reuse, recycle," and now compost. Let's think critically for a moment about what we consume. Everything we consume must first be made using resources. For every 1-pound of goods produced, 71 pounds of waste is created. This waste encompasses everything from mining for resources and refining raw materials to powering production facilities, to the transportation required in-between.

As an example, we can look at food waste in the United States. Brace yourself for a staggering look into the microcosm of the consumer waste world. The average family throws out 1 out of 4 bags of groceries. That means 1 out of 7 truckloads of perishables being delivered to supermarkets should not even bother making the journey. Per family, this can add up to over $1,350 thrown away each year. On a national scale, this means Americans are throwing away $165 billion each year when you take into account the water, energy, land, and transportation that goes into producing food.

All of this garbage piles up in landfills, which results in methane emissions. It may be convenient to blame a significant portion of climate change on cow flatulence, but the waste sent to landfills also accounts for a large chunk of U.S. methane emissions. It's time to stop blaming the dog for the bad smell in the room and take ownership, so to speak. Reducing this consumer waste will require a change in the supply chain operation, alternative marketing incentives, and an overall increase in public awareness, not to mention a shift in consumer behavior.

Car junkyard, Albuquerque, New Mexico showing smashed cars stacked on top of one anotherIn a world that makes us believe that resources are expendable, we are conditioned to always want more. In the United States, the consumerist mentality is an intrinsic quality. We are reckless consumers and waste producers. We are aware of our negative impact, yet we chose to be blind to the scars we have given our planet simply because we cannot always physically see them.

As a visual reference, we can look to the work of large format photographer Edward Burtynsky. The images are striking visuals of the impact industry has on nature. Images of junkyards, quarries, factories, and refineries serve as unsettling contradictions. They conjure up an uncomfortable dialogue of ethics vs. aesthetics. What we see is beautiful, but that beauty is destructive, and we created it.

"We come from nature and we have to understand what it is, because we are connected to it and we are a part of it. And if we destroy nature we destroy ourselves." – Edward Burtynsky

Setting out labeled bins in San Francisco may seem like a minute step towards eliminating our waste output, but collectively it can create a great impact in healing our scarred planet.

What initiatives can be taken to encourage zero-waste practice across the U.S. and across the world? Can we make conscious consumerism an inherent part of society? What is your city doing to reduce its consumption or waste? Share your stories below.

Credits: Images by Lauren Golightly. Data linked to sources.