What They Do With Waste in California

Estimated read time 6 min read

In 2000, the amount of municipal waste generated in the United States was 400 million tons. By that time, the recycling rate for the country as a whole was 32%. Of the remaining 61% was landfilled and 7% was incinerated.

At this point, there were 9,700 recycling collection programs and 3,800 composting facilities in operation. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a national recycling goal of 35%. Many states, however, set a recycling goal of 50% and some states set a recycling goal of over 70%.

In 1989, the California state government set a recycling goal for cities and counties in the state of California of 50% recycling, with possible penalties for violating that goal of up to $10,000 per day.

By 2001, statewide waste generation was 68 million tons per year, with a recycling rate of 42%. The state’s 195 communities met or exceeded the 50% recycling rate.

San Francisco’s municipal waste collection system

The City and County of San Francisco is home to 330,000 residences and 60,000 businesses. 30% of the population lives in apartments in high-rise rental buildings, while the rest live in private cottages. There are also 60 thousand enterprises – waste generators.

In 2003, the target recycling rate of 50% was deemed insufficient by the municipality of San Francisco. A resolution was passed to achieve a 75% recycling rate by 2010 and “Zero Waste “1 by 2020. As of 2007, the City as a whole had achieved a recycling rate of 70% for all types of waste and a recycling rate of over 50% for municipal waste.

In 1932, San Francisco law mandated two for-profit companies: “Sunset Scavenger” and “Golden Gate Disposal” were granted the exclusive right to collect and recycle municipal waste from throughout the city and county. Construction waste is also collected on a competitive basis by other companies of the waste generator’s choice. 70% of construction waste is recycled. Electronics waste, which is not allowed to be collected together with municipal waste, is collected at special sites in the city on certain days. Manufacturing waste is not generated in the county.

To increase recycling rates, the municipality has implemented a program for separate collection of municipal waste “Fantastic 3”. Municipal waste is sorted by residents and businesses into three items and placed in color-coded containers.

The color coding of the containers is the same for private, multi-family buildings and waste generating businesses. The standard container volume for private households is 64 gallons, but can be increased or decreased at the customer’s request. Large containers are located near apartment buildings and businesses.

Waste is removed by two-compartment garbage trucks, which run on gas fuel to reduce pollution, according to a schedule (usually once a week). Two-chamber garbage trucks allow you to remove waste from the blue and black containers in one trip. In this case, the volume of the body is divided in a ratio of 60%: 40%. Recyclables from the blue bin are deposited in the larger compartment to preserve their quality. During collection, the driver controls the correct sorting of the waste in the different containers and if there is oversorting, the container is not emptied.

Organic waste is sent to the field composting site

Waste from the “black” container is sent without sorting to the landfill owned by the external company “Waste Management”. The municipality of the city signed a contract with the company for disposal of a certain total volume of waste, and the period for which this volume will be disposed of is not specified in the contract. Thus, the municipality is interested in reducing the volume of waste disposal.

As a result of the “Fantastic 3” program, the collection rate of waste for recycling as a whole has doubled and exceeded 50%, and, for example, the recycling rate of restaurant waste has exceeded 90%. The best results have been achieved in the private sector and in commercial enterprises, where personal and corporate responsibility for waste can be established. At the same time, a serious concern for the authorities is caused by apartment buildings, where the level of separate collection is relatively low. In this regard, to further increase recycling rates, the authorities are considering the construction of a so-called “dirty MSK” where mixed waste from the black bin will be sorted.


Funding for both the collection and disposal of waste is carried out by their producers – companies and residents, in the private sector – individually, and in apartment buildings – based on the total volume of waste generation. Payment of the company’s costs is carried out according to the tariff determined through negotiations between the municipality and the company – the executor, and is reviewed once every 5 years. Residents are charged only on the basis of the volume and frequency of the black container. The blue and green containers are removed as if they are “free of charge”, but the money collected also goes to finance the treatment of waste collected for recycling. Commercial enterprises are also charged for the removal of organic waste from the green bin, in the amount of 75% of the tariff for the removal of the black bin. The current cost for waste management is $19 per month, with a black bin volume of 64 gallons and pickup once a week. This arrangement provides an incentive for waste generators to sort their waste. At the same time the situation is opposite for the company – executor: the higher the level of recycling of waste, the less will be the revenue. Meanwhile, recycling saves only part of the cost of handling blue and green containers. In addition, the scheme in place has no incentive to reduce overall waste generation.

San Francisco, like the rest of the state of California, participates in the beverage container lien program. In contrast to Russia, regional and local authorities in the U.S. have more authority and can impose bail values on their own. For example, for every bottle or can sold, a surcharge of about 10 cents is assessed, which can be returned by turning in the container at a special collection point. That said, if 10 cents isn’t enough money for you, you can throw the can in the blue recycling bin. Then the collateral value will go to the recycling sorters.

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