San Francisco Adds Compost Mandate to Recycling Program

Published September 1, 2009

San Francisco residents and businesses will be required to separate from their trash all potential compost, in addition to separating all recyclable materials, under a new law passed by the city’s Board of Supervisors.

Fines for Insufficient Composting

Passed by a 9-2 vote, the new law authorizes the city to fine individual citizens up to $100 per violation, and businesses up to $500 per violation, if they don’t properly segregate recyclable or compostable refuse from their trash.

Fines also can be imposed if garbage collectors notice an individual citizen is not submitting at least a cubic yard of refuse for composting each week.

The regulation came at the request of Mayor Gavin Newsom (D) in working toward the city’s stated goal of sending nothing to its landfill by 2020. The city already diverts 72 percent of its waste away from its landfill.

Under the new law, expected to take effect this fall, each home- and business-owner will be required to use three recycling bins: a green one for composting food and yard debris; a blue one for recycling bottles, cans, and paper; and a black one for garbage that cannot be recycled or composted.

Lax Enforcement Promised

A spokesperson for the city’s Environment Department, the agency tasked with overseeing the new law, said it will exercise restraint in issuing fines, reserving them for repeat offenders.

Critics counter that the city has broken similar promises in the past, such as its aggressive enforcement of laws prohibiting visible trash cans, even though proponents gained support for such laws only after pledging to exercise restraint in enforcement.

‘Nanny State at its Worst’

“I find this very amusing,” said Max Schulz, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. “This is the nanny state at its worst.”

Recycling in general is a futile business that costs more than it’s worth, said Schulz.

“In the corrugated box industry, recycling has been cost-effective,” Schulz explained. “But for aluminum cans, it’s not. This is more about making an eco-statement. And San Francisco can do what it wants, … but the problem is when other states point to San Francisco and ask, ‘is San Francisco doing something we should be doing?’ That’s really the major issue.”

Market Incentives Ignored

Per Bylund, a summer research fellow with the Ludwig von Mises Institute, notes mandated recycling has been a part of life for years. But while the government touts the program as a success, it can make that claim only because it doesn’t factor in all the costs and burdens borne by residents and business owners, Bylund said.

“This is probably the first step to something worse,” said Bylund of San Francisco’s new law. “There are probably going to be increases in garbage disposal waste costs … and probably new restrictions on what kind of trash you can throw away.”

A better approach to recycling is to privatize the disposal, recycling, and composting of refuse and allow market prices to provide consumer incentives, Bylund said.

“If people are so crazy about recycling,” Bylund said, “why mandate it?”

Cheryl K. Chumley ([email protected]) is a 2008-09 journalism fellow with The Phillips Foundation.