How San Francisco Achieved a High Performing Food Waste Composting Program
Kat Heinrich
09 June 2017

San Francisco has long been recognised for its leadership on environmental issues. It’s perhaps no surprise then that the city has a successful food waste composting program.

The City collects about 370,000 tons per year of compostables.  Of that amount, 150,000 tonnes is food waste from households and businesses (or an average of 3.4 kg per person per week).  This waste is sent to a facility for commercial composting.  I had the pleasure of interviewing Soko Made, Assistant Coordinator of San Francisco’s Zero Waste Program to learn more about the city’s recycling.  She shared with me five factors that have together driven San Francisco’s high performing food waste composting program.
San Francisco’s three bin system to collect compostables (green bin), recyclables (blue) and trash (black) from households and businesses.
Photograph sourced from
1) A Highly Convenient Service

Soko explains that food waste composting falls within San Francisco’s ‘Fantastic 3’ Program.  Under this program, the city provides door-to-door collections of three waste streams to residents and businesses.  This includes compostables (including food waste), recyclables and trash (to landfill).  Residents can choose the size of their bin (from 32 gallons up to 96 gallons – or approx. 120 litre to 360 litres) and recieve a weekly collection service.  Businesses and apartments are provided with the same options, except they can also select from larger volume bins with compactors (up to 40 yards – or approx. 40 cubic meters). They can also choose how often their bin is collected (from weekly up to daily).  The service is highly convenient for customers, as they can request a collection service that suits their needs and preferences.

The convenience of participating in the food waste composting program is extended to the inside of dwellings.  Residents are given a 3 gallon (or approx. 7 litres) pail to make it easier to separately collect food waste in their kitchen. 

“San Francisco’s success is due to the combination of five factors; convenience, incentives, legislation, education and partnerships.

– Soko Made, Assistant Coordinator of San Francisco’s Zero Waste Program

2) Financial Incentives to Recycle Food Waste

The city charges residents and businesses for collection of their bins based on the volume of waste presented, which is a function of both bin size and frequency of collection.  Soko explains that differential pricing for residents is set depending on the stream, with fees for collection of the trash bin about 10 times higher than fees for the recycling and compostables bins.

Another financial incentive is to avoid contamination charges.  If contamination is repeatedly found in a resident’s compostable or recycling bins, then they are can be charged at 50% of the rate of the trash bin

The city takes a different approach to the way it charges businesses for waste collections to prevent contamination of the recycling and compostables bins.  Businesses are billed an amount based on the size of their bin(s) and the number of times each bin is presented for collection.  They can obtain a diversion credit based on their use of the recycling and compostables bins.  If a business’s recycling and/or compostables bin is found to be consistently contaminated, then they are not awarded the diversion credit.  If compostables and/or recyclables are repeatedly found in the trash bin, businesses can also be charged 50% of the rate of the trash bin.

This fee system provides a financial incentive for people to place food waste in the compostables bin (rather than via the trash bin to landfill).

Example of monthly bill to households for collection of compost, recycling and landfill (or trash) bins. It costs less for compost and recycling bins compared to trash landfill.   Households can also save money by reducing the size of their landfill bin.

Image sourced from

3) Legislation Mandating Composting

In 2009, the city introduced the ‘Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance’.  This legislation makes it compulsory for everyone in San Francisco – including residents, businesses, government and even tourists – to properly recycle and compost their waste.  Anyone who is found not separating recyclables and compostables from their trash can be subject to a fine.

The city takes a gentle approach to enforcement of the Ordinance.  It carries out audits of trash bins to identify whether they contain any recyclable or compostable materials.  Where these materials are found, the auditor leaves a tag on the bin with a note documenting the occurrence and a first warning of a fine for noncompliance.  If the offender is found to continue placing recyclable and/or compostable materials in their trash bin, they are issued a second warning.  It is only upon the third identified occurrence that they are issued a fine of 100 USD.

The impact of introduction of the Ordinance coupled with the threat of enforcement was immediate. Within the first month, the volume of organic waste collected from residents and businesses via the organics bin jumped by 50% (from 400 tonnes per day up to 600 tonnes per day).

Interestingly, there was little resistance to introduction of the Ordinance.  Soko suspects that this is because most people were already familiar with the recycling and compostables services, as they had been in place for 10 years.

Mayor Gavin Newson signs mandatory composting and recycling law

Photograph sourced from Inhabitat

4) Delivery of Information and Education on How to Participate in the Food Waste Composting Program

Another essential component behind the city’s success with food waste composting is a comprehensive education program.  This includes delivery of advice to residents and businesses on how to use the bins (via door knocking and information sessions), feedback on composting performance via tags on audited bins, as well as bin signage indicating what items belong in each bin.  Furthermore, the city has consistent bin colouring across (green for compostables, blue for recycling and black for trash).  Soko explains that these colours help bin users to quickly recognise what type of waste should be placed into each bin.

5) Strong Partnerships to Deliver the Program

The final factor underpinning San Francisco’s success with its food waste composting program is its partnerships with organisations that help deliver the program.  The city has engaged a sole contractor – Recology – to undertake waste collection services.  The city’s Zero Waste and Outreach teams at the Department of the Environment are responsible for program development, outreach and education.  The Department also partners with other policy makers, community organisations, and city departments, such as Recreation and Parks, who provide feedback on the need for outreach and education based on theirs observations across the city.

“We see this as a long-term process. Cities change over time, such as demographics and technologies. It’s important that programs evolve with these changes.”

– Soko Made, Assistant Coordinator of San Francisco’s Zero Waste Program

Challenges Along the Way

Whilst San Francisco has an effective food waste composting program, the city’s transition to this point has not been without its challenges.  One of the biggest challenges it faced was multi-unit buildings that had a single chute for trash,  with no provision for recycling and compostables bins making it inconvenient for residents to recycle their waste.  To overcome this challenge, the city included language in the building code that says if new buildings have chutes installed, they either must have three chutes or have a diverter system. This ensures residents have equal access to the three streams.  Old buildings with a single chute for general waste were required to either; place recycling and compostables bins adjacent to the chute doors on each level or block-off the chute and position bins for the three waste streams elsewhere in the building.  Again the goal is to make composting and recycling as convenient as the trash.  

It’s expected that San Francisco will face future challenges to its recycling programs due to changing demographics, lifestyles and technologies.  Soko says that recycling is a long-term process for the city and that it’s important programs are adapted over time to move with these changes.

Beyond Food Waste

San Francisco’s experience provides a roadmap for how cities can introduce a successful food waste composting program to their residents and businesses.  The starting point is provision of a highly convenient service to residents and businesses for collection of food waste (separate from trash) together with a fee structure that encourages recycling of food waste and penalises contamination of bins.  It’s important that education and information is provided to residents and businesses on how to use the food composting system and that strong partnerships are in place to deliver the program (to collect the food waste, process it, and monitor contamination of bins).  However, to drive high levels of food waste composting, San Francisco shows the power of legislation that mandates separation of food waste from trash.  It was the introduction of the legislation itself, rather than strong enforcement, which was key to driving up levels of food waste composting across the city.

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