Millions of New Jobs Can Be Found in Trash
Recology’s Model Recycling Program Means Jobs and a Cleaner Environment
The city of San Francisco is now keeping 80 percent of its solid waste out of landfills, a statistic that leads the nation and a record that is attracting visits by officials from across the U.S. and around the world to consider the possibilities.
San Francisco-based Recology, which manages municipal disposal processes and services that span the needs of urban, suburban and rural communities, processes approximately 750 tons of recycled items per day at a factory-like facility in San Francisco that sorts and bales them into 16 commodities, returning them to commerce and keeping them out of landfills. In addition, since 1996, Recology has developed a large-scale composting program that takes 650 tons per day of organic matter and turns it into compost that goes to farms, orchards, vineyards and landscaping businesses.
The San Francisco model also shows that its approach to recycling can benefit more than the environment. Recology’s recycling facility is situated in a neighborhood where unemployment rates have been high for decades. The employee-owners working the lines in the facility are, in most cases, the first generation in their family ever to purchase homes, and to send their children to college.
“Research shows that, if this model were widely adopted, literally millions of jobs would be created,” said Mike Sangiacomo, president and CEO of Recology. “What we’re looking at is a huge potential economic stimulus at a time when the nation looks to new economies to create jobs on a large scale.”
Composting Joins Recycling as Key to Success
Recology, which manages solid waste for 115 communities in the Western United States, including San Francisco, Portland and Seattle (which rank as the top three greenest cities in the U.S. according to SmartPlanet.com), has a three-cart system in place in San Francisco. Residents, businesses and multi-family dwellings place used items in three carts: blue for recycling (paper, plastics, metals and glass), green for food scraps and other organic matter, and black for the remainder that cannot currently be recycled.
Landfills historically have been the final destination for what people discard. But they are a dangerous use of land, as they emit substances that can harm ground water, and worse, they typically release methane, a greenhouse gas many times more harmful than carbon dioxide.
“Food breaking down in landfills is the culprit,” says Sangiacomo. “Composting food dramatically reduces methane gas in the atmosphere. It also puts nutrients back into the soil, where they came from in the first place.” Sangiacomo believes that landfills could become a thing of the past if communities across the U.S. join San Francisco in moving toward its goal of zero waste.
A Model for the Nation
“What we’ve been able to develop with the city of San Francisco is a model that absolutely can be replicated by cities across the nation,” said Sangiacomo. “And we’ve done this in an urban area that is second in size only to the New York metropolitan area.” Sangiacomo says that officials from municipalities from around the U.S. and abroad want to learn from San Francisco’s success.
“We’ve seen what can happen when a city commits to a recycling ethic, and it’s very encouraging,” says Sangiacomo. “I would encourage anyone wanting their community to move more quickly towards zero waste to contact their local officials. When citizens talk, public officials listen.”
Other Methods for Diverting Materials from Landfill
The San Francisco operation of Recology takes additional steps to keep useful items out of landfills. It retrieves a surprising number of items for its “perfectly good” program, sending bicycles, furniture, books and a host of other items to thrift stores to extend their useful lives. Paint is accepted at the Household Hazardous Waste Facility and is mixed into three basic colors available free of charge to anyone who wants it, though a large quantity also goes each year to developing countries for painting schools, hospitals and other public facilities. Hazardous materials, such as batteries, are also collected for proper and safe recycling. In fact, Recology San Francisco even transforms discarded material into art. Its Artist in Residence Program is a unique art and education program that provides Bay Area artists with access to discarded materials, a stipend, a large studio space at the Recology Solid Waste Transfer and Recycling Center, and a two-day public exhibition following the residency for up to eight artists each year. The program has generated critical acclaim both for its outdoor sculpture garden juxtaposed to the city’s “dump”, and for its corporate headquarters, where a large-scale mosaic made from cut-up skateboards spans an entire wall.